I was raised Roman Catholic. Yup. Baptized, communion, confirmation, marriage — I have received many sacraments. As an adult, however, I am a bad Catholic. I don’t attend mass, and my children are heathens. However, when asked about my religious affiliation, I will always proclaim that I am Catholic.
My relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is similar to many Americans relationship with public education. I know this post will offend some people, but that is not my intent. Please allow me to explain my analogy.
1. You must have faith.
Like Christianity, one must see the end goal in mind when thinking about the mission of public education. Christianity’s mission is to live a life based on Jesus’ teachings in order to find salvation. Public education’s mission is to provide education to every resident in the United States of America. That education is supposed to be appropriate, rigorous, and standardized. Americans must have faith in the mission of public education, or they will abandon their community schools and search for alternatives. Many Americans have lost their faith in their local public education system and have turned to charter and private schools (some corporate based) in order to provide the “best” education for their children. Urban public schools have not been adequately invested in and Americans have especially turned to alternatives to public education in city settings. This divestment has led to more issues in the existing urban public schools, leading to public monies being diverted from public education, and has continued to weaken communities. Losing faith in an institution like public schools furthers the false narrative that schools are failing. A recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “Why Americans Think So Poorly of the Country’s Schools,” by Jack Schneider, discusses the impact of the loss of faith in public schools. The article actually points out that Americans rate their own schools much higher than American public education in general. Schneider states that the implications of the gap in faith in public schools are crucial, writing:
But the perception gap is real. And it is deeply consequential — fostering interventionist policy, stigmatizing schools, and exacerbating segregation. In acting on perception, Americans have done great harm to their public schools. But efforts to more clearly represent reality might undo the damage; it might even make schools stronger.
We must have faith in our public schools to make our schools better.
2. You get out of it what you put into it.
My religious education teacher told us that you get out of mass what you put into it. He was right, of course. When congregants “phone in” their attendance by not listening to the sermon or daydreaming throughout the mass, they are simply getting through their Sunday obligation. Public schools are community centers, but they also need an army of volunteers. Strong PTAs make a school vibrant, generate fund-raisers, and enable school functions. Parental involvement is crucial, but the entire community must be quite nationalistic about their school, for school pride to be a reality. Sporting events are a good door opener, but other programs for adults and families are very effective in getting more out of our public schools.
I teach in a large, suburban school district. I live in a small, rural district. Both districts are intent on connecting to the community. However, in the rural district in which I reside, the school is the community. It is a major employer. It is connected to a community recreation center, with a pool. The school parking lot is seldom empty and you better arrive early to get a decent spot to park when concerts, plays, or other student activities are happening.
All communities members could do more to participate in our public schools. If we had more commitment to our public schools, they would truly be places of pride.
3. You notice the areas in need of improvement in the institution, but you accept that there is more good than bad.
My friend once said, in jest, that to her the Roman Catholic Church is similar to that crazy uncle we all have. He might be quirky, and we might keep our distance at times, but he is still family. The Roman Catholic Church has had plenty of issues and has had its share of complaints: sexual abuse scandals, absent female leadership, etc. The issues in the Catholic Church are real and important, but often they overshadow the charity and the good works that congregations do for so many.
The issues in public schools are great and many. There are significant issues to be addressed: school building maintenance, curriculum, testing, overcrowding, segregation, funding inequities, teacher training, teacher pay, teacher pensions, staff development, special needs appropriations, mental health issues, and the dire need for vocational opportunities.
The negatives are significant and need addressing. However, the positives are so overwhelming. Ask a person to describe their best teachers. You will notice how animated they become. Their face lights up and they often wax nostalgic. In every public school, there are countless teachers leading students on the path of learning. There are 3.1 million public school teachers practicing the craft of teaching.
There is more good than bad in public education.
4. You need to contribute money to help the institution run properly.
I remember being nervous during mass when the wooden baskets were passed around because we didn’t have one of those official envelopes like other people. My grandfather would simply reach into his wallet and throw a couple of dollars into the pile. I felt proud that my family contributed to the church’s good works.
Public education funding is bone dry in many places. There is such inequity in funding formulas, and not surprisingly, areas with bigger houses have bigger budgets.
In another recent article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Kay writes about how Canadian taxpayers recognize that in terms of government spending you get what you pay for, in an article entitled, “Why Canada Is Able to Do Things Better.” Kay writes that in Canada he pays about 10 percent more in taxes than he would in the United States, but he gets more than 10 percent of a return, writing:
What does that 10 percent premium buy for my family? Aside from universal health care, there’s world-class public schools, a social safety net that keeps income inequality at rates well below America’s, and an ambitious infrastructure program that will help Canada keep pace with its swelling ranks of educated, well-integrated immigrants.
We must look to other countries for models of getting more out of our tax dollars.
5. You might not want to go, but are glad you did when you leave.
Getting up early and wearing church clothes is not fun. I remember one Sunday when my grandfather was upset because the shirt I packed was wrinkled. I recall, however, how the priest talked about appearances that day and my grandfather and I laughed about the topic. After mass, he took me to Perkins for pancakes and all was right in the world. I have always felt better after mass. Maybe it was a feeling of an obligation fulfilled. Maybe it was true spirituality.
Public education begins early in the morning. It sometimes requires wearing nice clothes and it involves a great deal of listening (on the part of students, especially). It is not always easy for students to connect with the topics that their teachers preach on about, but when connections are made it is as glorious as a rainbow.
Many adults carry with them negative experiences about their time in public schools. These perceptions often cloud their ability to see public schools as positive institutions. However, like mentioned in number three above, taxpayers often become more positive about public schools when they are involved with the schools in constructive ways. Furthermore, students never say that they regret getting an education. In the words of one graduating senior that I had the pleasure to teach, he said: “You know, this place isn’t so bad.”
6. You meet flawed people, sinners, and saints.
My husband often comments that church is really necessary for many people, he says that some people need the church. I get his meaning — church can be a sanctuary for many. A congregation also includes people of varying socioeconomic levels and reasons for attending. There are people who need saving and there are others who help them get there.
Public schools are often sanctuaries for students. Students eat their meals at school. Students have a routine and expectations at school. Students bring their problems to school. Public schools embody the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Public schools are open to any student. This open door policy can make public schools messy, amazing places. Public schools are diverse, creative, vibrant and dynamic. Public schools are microcosms of society.
7. You have a shared popular cultural experience with other people who have attended the same institution.
Roman Catholic Mass is the same everywhere. Many people find comfort in standardization. Schools are similar in their standardization — school buildings have classrooms, teachers, students, and administrators. Most schools have bells, schedules, and rules. Many also share a smell, part cleaning solution, vomit, glue, and tater tots.
Although schools are not “equal” in terms of rigor, standards, funding, teacher pay, amenities, everyone has a school story. Like being Roman Catholic, public school graduates have more in common than not. In a way, it is like public school gives us all a shared television show, with character archetypes we all know and love. This common appreciation for the challenges of public schools, for both students and educators alike, is where the conversation concerning the future of public education begins.
The following are some topics to begin the conversation:
- Is public education a right of all residents of the United States?
- What should be the mission of every public school in the United States?
- How should all of America’s public schools be equitably funded?
- How much do we, as citizens of the United States, value the salaries, benefits, union organization, and pensions of public school educators?
- Who should be recruited to teach in our public schools? What incentives will we offer our young professionals to choose to teach?
- What curriculum needs to be taught in our public schools?
- What do we want our public school graduates to be able to do upon completion of their education?
- Do we value vocational training and apprenticeship?
Feel free to add your own questions and comments below. For me, these are reasons why I will be marching for public education in our nation’s capital on Saturday, July 22, 2017.