Perhaps no one in our great national history is more quotable than Benjamin Franklin, who stated prior to signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”. This statement was made during what is arguably the most politically uncertain time in our nation’s history. No one knew if the signers of that document would go down in history as great statesmen or be hung as traitors. It was a time when unprecedented uncertainty led to unprecedented levels of purpose, unity, and courage.
While our current landscape pales in comparison to the events of 1776, I would argue that we are again in a time of uncertainty, one also calling for unity, courage, and purpose. I don’t pretend to compare the political climate of 2017 to that of 1776, but I think we can all agree that we are at a crossroads, both in Iowa and nationally, and nowhere is that more evident than in our country’s efforts to chart a new course for its public education system. Never before have we been more divided about the role and importance of public education and never before have so many new ideas been put forward. What should schools look like? How should we pay for them? Who should attend them?
There are many legitimate arguments on all sides of these questions, depending largely it appears on ones ideology on the ideal role of government vs the power of free markets and choice. There is one place, though, where I hope we can, in the words of Mr. Franklin, all hang together and that is in the embracing of our country’s need for a strong public schooling system, one available as a high quality option to every family. And if we are to have a quality public option open to every family, we need to have that option fully funded and not take away from that funding in order to fund other options. This is an expensive proposition but one that fits within one of our governments designated purposes, defined in the preamble of our Constitution as “promoting the general welfare”. I liken this to streets, parks, or any other publicly funded service. I don’t use all of the streets in my town, but I also understand that we have people who need them all. I don’t just pay taxes to keep up the streets I drive on. I pay taxes that support all the parks in my city and state even though I only use a few, because I know they promote the general welfare of our society. In the case of education the concept is even more important because we rely on education to build economic capacity and citizenship. My kids aren’t in school anymore, but when I support the cost of educating 500,000 students across the state of Iowa, 99.9% of whom I don’t even know, it’s a tax I happily pay because I know the benefit it creates for my society and for me as an individual.
In no way do I want to disparage education options outside the public school-house. The accredited non-public school options available in Iowa are of outstanding quality. Many of my closest friends attended non-public school. They are extremely well educated, compassionate people. I, myself, benefited from two years at a private college before finishing at a regents university. (I could have benefited more with a bit more maturity at the time, but that’s a topic for another day.) I have friends and relatives who chose to home school and who are serving our society in powerful and positive ways. I support any person’s right to exercise a choice that does no harm to a fellow citizen. Where I fear for the fabric and future of my society, though, is when someone decides that they are no longer responsible for supporting their share of the public good, inferring that education is a zero sum game and that one choice can only be advanced at the cost of another.
Let’s not put ourselves in a corner that requires us to make false choices. We can have adequately funded public schools and still provide quality alternative options for families, but if we create those alternatives at the expense of the system that continues to educate and will continue to educate over 90% of our population, we run the risk of further jeopardizing our nation’s economy and very democracy. Let’s support equity of opportunity for all, by first making sure that a quality public school is an option for every family. Let’s adequately pay for the education of all kids not only as a matter of basic fairness, but for the sake of our future as a nation. If we don’t hang together as a society now, we may well hang separately in the future.