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The Rest of Us

It’s strange what people are paying attention to these days. While most are still breathless with anticipation at the next detail of the Kardashian wedding, schools are failing, roads are crumbling, and people are being needlessly deported. While thousands are occupying cities all over the country calling for economic justice, unemployment continues to soar and banks are foreclosing on homes.

Oh well – it’s not our problem, right? I mean really, if the public schools fail, we can just invoke the magic of the private sector and fix all of the government problems.  Private schools are always better than those dirty public ones anyway, right? In fact, let’s privatize everything!

No. Let’s not.I’ll let Ananya Roy, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California-Berkeley, tell you why:

The “financial Katrina” that recently swept through the country only compounded the country’s economic inequality. Wall Street was bailed out, while Main Street was left to fend for itself. My colleague, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, has rightly called this “socialized capitalism,” one in which the profits are enjoyed by the wealthy few, but the losses are borne by the rest. Public education is one of the most important ways in which such disadvantage can be mitigated. It democratizes opportunity in a socioeconomic order that can otherwise concentrate advantage at the very top.

The crisis of public education threatens the democratization of opportunity in America. The betrayal of opportunity is a generalized condition of vulnerability and exclusion, one facing a wide swath of Americans. The anchors of what once defined the American middle class: home ownership, stable jobs, and public education, are quickly eroding. Opportunity has become the privilege of the 1 percent, rather than a widely held right.

Equally important is the future of American democracy. Here it is worth emphasizing the word “education” in the phrase “public education.” Public education already makes the best of scarce resources, doing more with less. But education cannot be delivered through models of discount chain stores or fast-food franchises. Education cannot be nurtured through virtual learning portals.

Perhaps more now than in any recent memory, we are bombarded with the most negative images of government. “Big government” is always squeezing the small business owner, taking too much of your hard-earned money, and generally telling us what to think and what to do.  And since their only solution to big government is small government, they want to starve the bloated beast until it slims down to a more manageable size.

Case in point, NC-Pre K, the program formally known as “More at Four”. No matter what you call the program, it helps at-risk children get a sound educational foundation before being kicked into the larger school system. It has been a national model for what public education can do right… and it was gutted in the recent budget.

There have been lawsuits, court orders, and much political hay made of the decision to re-name and slash the program, but at the end of the day, students will loose. And as a result, we will loose. More children will enter Kindergarten and First Grade behind their peers, and most will never catch up. All for a few hundred million buck a year, or roughly $.17 per NC resident, per year.

Are you seriously telling me that you don’t have $.17 to spare? Is the future of our state economy, which will consist of these children in twenty or so years, not that important? Are we willing to accept the economic fate of Alabama or Louisiana (both which are predicted to spend more per student than NC will next year) or are we willing to do something now to save our public education system?

We all pay for public education because we all benefit collectively from an educated populous. We all needed it when we were young, and future generations will need it even more than we did. Let’s just stop and think the next time we further reduce education opportunity for our young people. After all, these are the kids that will grow up and eventually run the world you will be living in – don’t you want them to do it well?