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My Turn: America must reclaim promise of public education

Last modified: 6/11/2015 12:35:51 AM
It’s that time again. Every four years – sometime between the last snowfall and the beginning of black-fly season – a fresh crop of presidential contenders descends on New Hampshire’s diners, veterans’ halls and local bookstores to talk about what they want for our nation. This year, instead of just listening to their vision for America, we are talking to them about what matters most to New Hampshire’s working families.

It is no surprise that public education and the economy top that list. It’s a conversation that is happening at kitchen tables, in school hallways and even in supermarket parking lots – from Dixville and Cornish to Warner and Nashua – about how to help our children succeed and how to ensure an economy that works for all, not just the well-heeled. In the coming weeks and months, we need to move that conversation to the campaign trail and call upon the candidates of today, who may become our elected officials of tomorrow, to work with us to address these issues.

When it comes to public education, time and again, we are seeing educators, parents and community members throughout the state and across the country coming together to reclaim its promise. Of course, what that looks like varies from school to school and community to community.

For us to give every child access to a high-quality public education, we must understand and confront the issues facing children and their families today: poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality and lack of opportunity. There is something wrong when half of the kids in our public schools are poor, many coming to school each day so hungry or exhausted or worried that they can’t even begin to focus on learning. There is something wrong when the top 25 hedge fund managers earn more than all kindergarten teachers in the United States combined, or when 100 percent of the income growth from 1980 to 2012 went to the top 10 percent.

Creating real opportunity for kids, families and communities must be a top priority for every presidential candidate, as must rebuilding the middle class. And to get there we must build a strong, vital public education system that provides multiple pathways to career, college and life. We must shift away from our current obsession with high-stakes testing to a focus on the whole child – to help children learn how to build relationships and work in teams, think critically and problem-solve, be resilient and creative, and build self-esteem and confidence. And we must listen to teachers, school support staff and others who see every day what our kids need.

Here in New Hampshire, that means fighting back against efforts to cut funding to school districts that need the most, even as one of the state’s most affluent communities stands to see the largest boost in funding, and making certain that all children have the supports and resources they need to learn. That means combating the devastating cuts to public services that hold our communities together and provide good jobs. And that means ensuring that a college education doesn’t come with crippling debt, especially as college students in New Hampshire have the second-highest amount of debt in the country.

We can think big and think forward: Scaling up 21st-century solutions such as community schools with wraparound services, to help meet the social, health and academic needs of children and their families. Or career and technical education programs that recognize that succeeding in a knowledge economy requires a combination of our minds and our hands, and that create tangible connections to a real future. Or universal access to early childhood education, which has been recognized as a way to level the playing field for all kids right from the start. (New Hampshire currently retains the dubious distinction of being one of nine states without a state-funded preschool program.)

The promise of public education built this country and gave millions the opportunity to chase their dreams. Now, as that promise is under attack, we must fight to ensure that all children have the chance to dream their dreams and achieve them. The promise of America is that, with a good education and a level playing field, you can do almost anything. We are reclaiming that promise so every child has a chance. We are reclaiming that promise for our kids and for our country.



(Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Laura Hainey is the president of AFT-New Hampshire.)


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