Thursday, July 25, 2024

Teachers on the front lines

| May 10, 2023 6:35 AM

School shootings and the bloody murders of totally innocent children and their teacher caretakers is a societal tragedy that Americans have become numb to. Without the common sense outlawing of the assault weapons used in most of these atrocities, the preventable horror will relentlessly continue, in our schools, most of them public schools.

On the front line of the onslaught are the teachers. Until recently those who had an affinity for kids, and enjoyed learning and sharing with young people the joys of learning, entered my chosen profession of teaching. They eagerly took on civilization’s necessary responsibility of passing on the accumulated body of knowledge to the following generation.

Far fewer young people aspire to be educators now, and the current worsening teacher shortage is a dark demonstration of that.

There is an unmistakable lack of respect for the profession that has been fundamental to our opportunity-based middle class prosperity.

There seems to be a particular lack of appreciation for Montana teachers reflected by our state’s lowest starting salaries in the country.

Free public education was a major reason that millions of immigrants fled the dead-end existence of ignorance and poverty in the old world to seek opportunity in the new world of America. The key to our “land of opportunity” was public education.

The burgeoning American economy of the 1800s signaled an overwhelming need for literate workers. Those who could cipher and read the language were far more productive than those who could not. They would soon become the backbone of the workforce, and also the entrepreneurial creators of countless private enterprises that resulted in perpetual job creation, and thus a continuous cycle of opportunity and prosperity.

Unique in all the world’s nations, this has been the “American Dream.”

Long a source of national pride, public schools are now a source of criticism and controversy. Our educational system, always available to the rich and poor alike, is criticized for not being competitive with the elitist-based systems of our authoritarian competitors. In addition to academics, our schools provide for socializing and leadership producing athletic, music and speech opportunities, unavailable except at high expense to kids in other countries.

Public schools provide hot lunches, safe spaces, counseling and nurturing, that simply wouldn’t be available without them.

Sad to say, at a time when public schools have never been more vital than they are today, there is a movement to eliminate these “government schools” as their critics call them. Do they really realize the ramifications if they succeed?

If public-supported schools are replaced by tuition-based private schools, then school choice will depend on students’ ability to pay. The result will inherently be a class system, the very opposite of the free and fair opportunity society that has truly made America great.

As with all institutions in this era of incomprehensible change, the challenges to public education are relentless. Schools increasingly deal with juvenile drug abuse, the tragedy of homelessness, student addiction to technological devices, and the ominous prospect of violence.

Public schools are carrying the loads of many of society’s burdens. To privatize schools will only exacerbate the problems because by their nature, private schools are selective and public schools can’t be. This will lead to a society that is less free and less fair to the less fortunate. Such a threat to our dwindling middle class will inevitably threaten American stability.

What we can do is work to improve the time-tested educational system that has been an American birthright. What society values most is reflected by its public priorities. In Montana, we have the resources to more adequately support public education. Do Montanans really want to distribute public resources to high-income earners for the theoretical economic benefit that might bring? I expect Montanans would choose to budget public money on the long-term economic and societal benefit of investing in the next generation through our public schools.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.