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Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON EDUCATION : Preserving the ‘Public’ in the Schools : It takes all of society to make it a system for every child. There is no higher priority.

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This week, people throughout Orange County are celebrating public education. It’s American Education Week, a time each year when we reaffirm our democracy’s commitment to affording every child--regardless of his or her special needs, gender, race, ethnicity, religion or wealth--equal opportunity to benefit from a free, public education. We have said as a community of civilized people that an education is a precious possession, and we have, in turn, funded with our tax dollars a program for all children.

Orange County’s schools and citizens have even more to celebrate this year. Only 10 short months ago we languished in the abyss of the county’s bankruptcy, feeling helpless and sometimes hopeless. To the surprise of some and the joy of everyone, literally thousands of individuals, businesses and community groups stepped forward to rescue our schools. They have not fully recovered, but they’re getting there.

It is, however, a bittersweet time. Our jubilation is somewhat marred by the realization that the continuation of public education in this country, as our democratic society has enjoyed it for more than two centuries, is in jeopardy. Our schools are under siege by some, threatening our children’s inalienable right to an education. This agenda is tragic. Our children deserve not just to dream, but also to believe that they can be anything they want to be in life and do anything they set their minds to do. They should be held back only by their own limited thinking and dreaming, not by our failure to afford them opportunities to learn.

Schools need the support of their customers. Those customers, of course, are you, me and everyone else who pays taxes. Our schools do indeed belong to we the people. That’s why they’re called “public” schools. We own them, and as owners and actual customers, we have a moral duty to make sure they remain vital and essential sanctuaries where our children work to their potential and blossom into responsible, productive adults. Otherwise, we will be the first generation of Americans that did not create a better world and greater opportunities for its next generation.

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Let’s face it. Our public schools have enormous challenges before them. In our complex society, parents devote less time to their children. Funds for quality educational programs never seem to be enough, and society turns to schools to solve every problem it can’t address successfully elsewhere. To paraphrase Wilson Riles, our former state superintendent of public instruction: When public schools began, they were basically asked to teach the 3 Rs; today people ask their schools to do what they used to ask their divine creator to do. That’s a tall order by just about anyone’s standards.

Through all of this and much more, Orange County’s public schools do a remarkable job, despite many ill-conceived myths to the contrary. They offer more rigorous programs and services for our children than ever before, and today’s students outperform their counterparts from previous decades on every measurable standard of achievement. That’s a fact. But can we do better? Should we try harder? Of course. Always.

Universal, free, quality public education remains one of the cornerstones of our American democracy. It is what sets us apart from all other nations and cultures in the world. We cannot allow the history books in the year 2010 or 2050 to read that our public schools were a 200-year social experiment that failed. Our grandchildren and their grandchildren deserve more. We owe it to future generations to leave them a “just society,” as Dr. Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, told Orange County school leaders last spring, “which has given every child an even chance. It’s not an issue of fairness; it’s an issue of survival and prosperity.” In the end, this will be defined by our ability to keep our public schools alive.

We can guarantee that future by taking action today. We must get every person who will listen and who cares about the quality of life here in Orange County and around the nation to invest in some small way either socially, emotionally or intellectually in our schools. We all will either work like crazy to save our schools, or stand idle and watch this important institution, and then our splendid democracy, crumble.

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So, those of us who passionately believe that public education deserves a chance to continue must be more vigilant and persuasive. We must take advantage of every opportunity to get involved, either as parents, grandparents, business or civic leaders, senior citizens, government officials and, yes, childless adults as well. The bottom line is that there is something in it for everyone. It’s called community pride and, more important perhaps, national security and economic survival.

I have learned that it is far more noble to do what is right than to do what is popular or politically correct. Bashing public education or acclaiming the virtues of school vouchers, which have the potential to give special advantages to some children over others, might be in vogue, but such rhetoric certainly isn’t noble. Common sense tells us that good public schools mean good public policy.

There are times when we need blind faith to support our schools. Faith means not knowing. That’s why it’s a miraculous virtue. But we must never give up. The stakes are simply too high.

We can and will preserve our public schools here in Orange County and launch them to even greater heights. Why? Because we must. American Education Week is an ideal time for each one of us to join the crusade: Parents must expect--demand--high standards from their children and their schools. Business leaders and employers must donate their expertise to help schools raise standards and prepare students for the world of work. Community leaders must join hands with their schools to develop and implement realistic school improvement ventures. We all must value children and learning.

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It’s a start. For as Aristotle taught us: It doesn’t mean a little, it means everything.


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