Give public schools more respect
The Kansas City Star
The day the private elementary school principal told my wife and I that he couldn’t help our child was the day my eyes were opened regarding public education.
Our oldest daughter was five, and we had begun to search for a grade school. Being the proud product of an exclusively private school education, in my mind it was a given that our children would attend the same type of schools that I had.
Most likely that would have been how it played out had our daughter not developed an issue that required attention outside the realm of a typical elementary school education.
The principal was understanding, knowledgeable, and supportive, yet all the while completely honest about what our daughter’s attendance at private school would entail. She would take classes there, but for the areas needing extra attention would go off-site to a facility that had the resources for cases such as hers. When we asked what this outside facility was, our jaws dropped when he answered, “The local public school.”
So began what is now a 13-years-and-counting relationship with an institution that has consistently disproved everything I thought I knew about public education.
Until our daughter entered our neighborhood public elementary school, my impression of a public education could be summed up with the term “safety net,” and not in a positive sense.
Out of ignorance and not malice, I was under the impression that a public school education was what someone had to settle for if they couldn’t attend a private school. To say that the servings of humble pie since then have been plentiful and well deserved would be an understatement.
I have witnessed events during the course of our children’s public education that have brought tears to my eyes. Four hundred young musicians packed onto a gymnasium floor playing an orchestra concert. Peer mentors working with fellow students in need of social and psychological support. Student-run theater productions that brought crowds to their feet. Academic achievement assemblies with college scholarship awards in the millions of dollars.
Interestingly, in my view the term “safety net” still applies, though for entirely different reasons than it did originally. Public education is a safety net in the best possible way because if not for access to the classes, programs and opportunities that this institution provides, scores of children would not have a strong shot in life.
And that’s what it’s all about. Everyone deserves a chance. Everyone deserves an opportunity to excel.
Additionally, it is also a safety net for those of us now beyond our time of formal education. All those kids going through school today will eventually be right where we are now, the adults in the room.
They will be the ones making decisions, breakthroughs and discoveries that will affect us all. If only from a selfish standpoint it is to our benefit to give those future adults access to the best opportunities possible.
At times it seems the very concept itself of public education is in the cross hairs. In the midst of a challenging fiscal climate or contentious ideological landscape it can be tempting to attack an institution whose structure doesn’t conform to a strict profit-and-loss model or parochial viewpoint.
It can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around the concept that farming children out to the lowest bidder in a business-type competition doesn’t yield good results. Or to see that to pull yourself up by your bootstraps you first must have the straps on which to pull.
On the other hand it can be as simple as this: Cast the net wide. We are all better when we are all stronger.
Derek Martin has been a pilot at FedEx for 16 years on both domestic and international routes. He lives in Olathe with his family. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108.