August 24, 2023

Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner: The Battle To Save Public Education

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In their substack “Steady,” Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner argue for saving “the soul of America.”

We like to tell ourselves that the United States is a great meritocracy, but wealth and levels of family education continue to play outsized roles in dictating a child’s likelihood of academic success long before she learns her ABCs. The simple truth is that kids come to school from widely different circumstances, and these influence their ability to thrive, independent of whatever innate intelligence or drive they may possess. The pandemic made these differences more acute.

The United States does possess a system (or more accurately, a collection of thousands of systems) that, if nurtured and respected, could foster greater equality of opportunity. And it is exactly the institution that is now struggling the most: public education. America’s public schools were once the envy of the world as engines of opportunity and upward mobility. If the nation had the will, they could return to that status once again.

Our public schools certainly weren’t perfect in the past, especially during legal racial segregation, when the lie of “separate but equal” (separate is never equal) helped enshrine white supremacy. The segregated schools of the Jim Crow Deep South were a shameful injustice and a stain on our national identity. They were inconsistent with our founding documents, which spoke eloquently about equality among people. Of course there was (and remains, to some extent) de facto segregation throughout America based on who lives in what neighborhoods. Well-financed suburban schools were often part of the draw of “white flight” from urban districts.

The very ethos of public education should be one of inclusion for America’s diverse population. It should be a place where children of different backgrounds come together to learn both from teachers and from each other. Our schools should be places that allow students to wrestle with what it means to be part of this great country, including understanding America’s uneven and often bloody road to greater equality.

Sadly, in recent years, we have seen a grave regression from these noble goals. Our schools and school districts have become fiercely contested frontlines in an era of stepped-up culture wars. As reactionary political forces target what we teach our children, it is no accident that truth, empathy, and our democratic values have become casualties.

A chief concern is how and what we teach about our history, particularly the Black experience, and race and ethnicity more generally. We have written here before about the shameful whitewashing of racial violence and injustice, including slavery, by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But this effort is not limited to him or that state. There is a national movement to not tell the full — and unfortunately tragic — reality of race in American history and how it continues to shape the nation.

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