Public education has been in crisis for a while now…but the crisis has accelerated significantly during the localization of the Great Recession. Massive funding cuts are destabilizing almost all school districts across the country. Schools are being closed and class sizes are increasing. Young people who hoped to be teachers aren’t able to find jobs in teaching. Drop-out rates are high and rising…particularly among already under-advantaged minority communities. But…the downward-spiral of support for public education didn’t just start with the Great Recession. Something else is happening to cause this shift in public sentiment…and public spending. Our crisis in public education actually seems to be a crisis of confidence in universal, career-related, democracy-strengthening education.
We don’t seem to be convinced that all children need a basic level of education. The way we fund our schools tells a lot about how we view equality in education…rich communities have an abundance of amenities while poorer communities have to scrimp and save just to provide the minimum. Even with massive expenditures for government intervention, the goal of equal opportunity in education is nowhere close to being a reality…and it’s fading fast as a viable vision for the future.
Education is no longer seen as a path to a career…or to success for that matter. As more jobs are out-sourced to other countries, the prospect of a good-paying, stable career is less and less viable. In addition, many high-paying positions in this country are being filled by foreign workers who are better trained in their particular specialty. With job opportunities being so uncertain, education has become a moving-target. In past generations, the goal of a certain type of job or profession motivated learning by students, and encouraged support by parents. A focus on career development has been replaced with the reality of a sequence of jobs…and this has changed the way we value education. Subsequently, the relevance of modern education is being seriously questioned.
We also don’t seem to believe any longer that our democracy requires educated citizens to sustain it. Since modern politics is mostly about ideology, belief and perception, education that’s based on critical thinking, science and reason no longer seems to be needed. In our popular media and personal communication, public policy issues are simplified down to a sound bite, a highly partisan opinion or a tweet. Because everyone has an opinion with or without an education, the importance of social science learning to become a more informed citizen is decreasing…and I’d say, at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, our problems are becoming more complex, but the solutions we need aren’t being sought through education.
At the heart of our education crisis, however, we can identify another more troubling observation…only the children of the rich and powerful and famous really need to be educated, because they’re the only ones who will ultimately make the most important decisions for the rest of us. An ‘entitlement’ society doesn’t need to go to school. I fear we see ourselves as more of a plutocracy than a democracy, so education can just slide for the majority of the population…so we don’t need equal opportunity, or stable careers, or critical thinking skills to deal with complex problems. The really important decisions will be made by a select few who we trust to make the best choices for all of us.
I’m proposing that we need to open another public conversation about education…but in this conversation we cannot afford to assume anything about the value placed on education by the public. In previous generations, education was seen as a way to invest in the well-being and success of our children and grandchildren. Today, I’m not so sure how we see education among competing public priorities. If funding trends are an indication of public sentiment, education appears to be a pretty low priority across the country. We need to address this issue soon…all it takes is one uneducated generation to seriously diminish our sustainability as an economy and as a democracy.