My Turn: Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy

For the Monitor
Published: 2/27/2022 6:00:41 AM
Modified: 2/27/2022 6:00:14 AM

Last week the New Hampshire House rejected, in a 177-174 vote, a proposed bill to provide an additional daily meal to children from low-income families.

“Although the majority recognizes the value and importance of students having access to meals, the state should not engage in another costly, forced requirement such as this,” East Kingston Rep. Deborah Hobson (R) wrote in opposing expanding free meals for needy students in New Hampshire public schools. “Providing breakfast and lunch to children remains a parental responsibility as whether to engage in this program or not is a decision for the local elected school board.”

Hobson and 176 colleagues, so lacking in compassion and unconcerned for the poor and vulnerable among us, may consider hunger a parental responsibility but it’s the community which suffers if malnourished students cannot keep up with students getting three squares plus snacks a day; the community which suffers when politicians believe that New Hampshire cannot afford to pay about $650,000 a year to keep school children healthy and productive.

The New Hampshire bill estimated a cost of 40 cents a day per needy student to keep our children healthy and alert — an opportunity to spend 40 cents a day/student to model a healthy community of sharing, sustenance and success.

Following the American Revolution leaders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, recognizing that to survive as a democracy and prosper America needed a well-educated citizenry, began to consider a national educational system of publicly-funded schools, schools for which Horace Mann, who had grown up in poverty and educated himself at a local public library before graduating from Brown University, became America’s leading advocate.

Mann, today considered America’s Father of Public Education, believed, as did many founding fathers, that education would benefit America by transforming children into literate, engaged and productive citizens willing to participate in civic life and recognize, as Mann wrote, that “Public Education is the cornerstone of our community and our democracy.”

Education as a national, universal, aspirational priority available to all Americans was a radical concept and must be protected.

Today, sadly, that radical belief that public education is such a cornerstone is not only unsupported by many Americans but is being directly assailed, both nationally and locally, by parochial interests trying to undermine civic engagement and the inalienable aspirational rights of many citizens in order to sustain privilege and power.

Today, sadly, assaults on public education are being marshaled on several fronts in order to siphon off, I believe, substantial numbers of students, resources and parental support and divert them to serve the interests of others.

The result, predictably, is that attacks on public education from the affluent and the well-educated on one side and those harboring grievances and resentments, often racist and exclusionary in nature, on the other side, are advantaged while the public interests and education are diminished.

Today, we are witnessing the frantic dying gasps of entrenched interests trying to sustain their power by trying to disenfranchise and marginalize the weak, the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to be free.

Today, we are witnessing insurrections, voter nullification attempts, book-bannings, loyalty oaths, lies about Critical Race Theory, denials about the existence of systemic racism, attacks on school board members, attempted shaming of LGBTQIA+ students; all diminishing the role of public schools, all serving to create space for anti-public, anti-democratic actions against vulnerable communities.

Vulnerable communities under attack today that soon, after America ceases to be a majority white nation in a few years, will be moving to embrace a more inclusive and pluralistic vision of America.

“Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care,” Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow.

They who deny food to the hungry and shelter to the sojourner do not care.

They who deny shelter and comfort are not lovestruck with the American Promise, and must be resisted.

“Education is our only political safety,” Horace Mann wrote. “Outside of this ark all is deluge.”

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)




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