In Defense of Public Education

90 percent.

90 percent of Americans send their kids to public schools. Let that number sink in a little bit. Unlike unemployment rates or mortgage interest rates, this is a number that has stayed pretty consistent over the past few years.

This tells us that most Americans rely on public schools. They want and need them. Unconvinced? Take a quick look at property values in high performing school districts, or better yet, those with magnet schools.

Yet there are people today who would happily toss 90% of America's children aside in the name of so-called "school choice" or hastily accredited charter schools, usually in the name of ideology, right wing conservatism, or religious fervor. Some conservatives even believe that the Department of Education as a whole represents "unreasonable interference" on the part of the federal government, and would like to see the whole thing scrapped.

One of them was confirmed today as our next Secretary of Education. She has never taught in a public school, has never studied pedagogy or education policy, has never sent her children to a public school, and has never attended one herself. Perhaps she will visit one for the first time in her tenure as Secretary.

As someone who studies education policy for a living, I can tell you the biggest hurdle I come up against when talking with people about my work is deceptively straightforward:

everyone has a personal experience with education policy.

This actually makes education policy somewhat unique on the list of things people like me study. And as we all know, sometimes all it takes is one good story to swing a vote, to change the shape of the shared future we create with one another.

One good story. Let's add that to the list of things Mrs. DeVos likely doesn't have when it comes to public education.

Think about it. Why send your kids to private schools? Because you think they're likely to get a "better education" there, and because you can afford to do so. If you've never actually had a positive experience in a public school, or any experience for that matter, you're much more likely to imagine them as lawless wildernesses that need guns to defend them from bears.

(also, pro tip? There is a right answer to the question "Do you think guns belong in schools?" when the senator asking you represents the district that's home to Sandy Hook Elementary School)

So Mrs. Devos, on the day you became our Secretary of Education for the forseeable future, I'd like to offer you one good story.

I'd like to introduce you to someone, a little girl who was a volatile combination of precocious and shy, a fast reader (sometimes too fast) and insatiably curious. She went to a public elementary school. She was part of a pilot program for Talented and Gifted (TAG) kids in her kindergarten year, and during elementary school it often felt like she spent more time in that TAG classroom than with her "regular" teacher. She loved book fairs and indoor recess, decorating the halls outside her classroom and braiding her best friend's hair in class. She learned that how you treat people teaches them how to treat you, and how you treat yourself sometimes matters even more. When she got to middle school she read every book in that new library, and had teachers who bent over backwards to give her extra work and projects to keep her occupied. She made a scale model of The Parthenon out of foam core, for goodness' sake, and the librarians were so proud of her that they had that model on display the rest of the years she went to that school. She had another spectacular TAG teacher who demanded that she challenge her own assumptions and read between the lines of what someone had written, who modeled for her what it looked like to show up for your students. She took an AP class online in eighth grade with the full support of her public school administration. In her public high school, she met teachers who went out of their way to make her feel heard and valuable, so critical for a teenage girl who has plenty of other ideas foisted on her about who she should be and what she's worth. She took nearly as many AP classes as that public school offered, and ate lunch in that new library surrounded by books that the librarians checked out for her, because they thought she would enjoy reading them on the bus home. And when it came time to apply to college? That little girl had a record of 13 years in the public school system that one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country not only found acceptable for admission, but worthy of an academic scholarship.

I am the legacy of public education. I am the 90%. And you better believe we're not going anywhere.