I can think of few acts braver than a parent putting a child on a school bus for the first time. Consider the mountain of faith in this simple act. I know how hard it was for me. I even made my husband follow that bus all the way to school.
We parents have the faith to send our kids to school because we believe that public education is the vehicle by which the promise of the American Dream is delivered. This early fall, I’d like to honor the millions of parents who courageously send their kids to school for the first time.
Critics, possibly a bit removed from their neighborhood public schools, at times try to paint public education as a nameless, faceless bureaucratic institution that is riddled with faults. And like many other institutions, our public schools do have flaws. However, those of us rooted in our communities, with or without school-age kids, do not see our schools as faceless institutions. Rather, we associate our schools with our child’s talented teacher, or the principal greeting kids at the door, or the coach waiting for kids to be picked up after practice, or the mom who became this fall’s crossing guard, or the front office staff who commiserate with us as we deliver the forgotten lunch, and… also with the friendly bus-driver who will not move that bus until every child is safely seated.
We rely on and embrace our neighborhood public schools as a community enterprise on which we deeply depend.
Perhaps our faith in our schools was instilled even unconsciously by the economic driver that public schools are. Consider that our public schools oftentimes are the number one employer in our communities. When we vote to improve our schools, the work to expand a school wing as a result of being able to reduce class size and hire more teachers will most likely be done by local construction companies whose workers will buy their lunch and fill their gas tanks using local businesses. Thriving school districts attract families who demand parks, services, and other business that help shape our kids’ lives. Studies show that even a two percent incremental increase in school funding produces more jobs than most state level tax cuts can produce. In summary, schools feed the economy.
Finally, and most importantly, there is one thing that our American public schools do better than any other schools in the country or even in the world: our public schools commit to addressing the needs of every single child. Our public schools are open to ALL children, without prejudice or pause. Our schools attempt to educate EVERYBODY. American students are students who are gifted, students with disabilities, students who need advanced placement, students who have experienced trauma, students who are learning English, students who are hungry, affluent students, students who live in poverty, students who are anxious, and students who are curious. They leave our homes with all these “things” and are welcomed, invited, and “allowed” to enter our schools.
This is what distinguishes American public schools from all others. Quite simply: American public schools carry out our American values.
Pam Roggeman is academic dean for the University of Phoenix College of Education.