Our Values: Education for Democracy article series logo education for democracy

by Clayton Callahan, Communications Committee Member

Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

A great proponent of public education, Jefferson proposed a tax-funded system of public education in A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge back in 1779. Despite the fact that Jefferson’s parents afforded him the very best in private education, he did not view knowledge as a privilege for the few but rather as a right for all. In fact, he believed that without public education, democracy itself would fail. As he later wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects to what never was and never will be.”

And his modern descendants in the Democratic Party are inclined to agree.

Since our earliest days as a nation, public education has been a thing and a good thing at that.

Having an educated populace has been critical to American prosperity and greatness since our inception. Considering the benefits of an educated citizenry in terms of our economic, military and political power it should be surprising to learn that public education is currently under attack… and a very determined attack it is.

Public education is currently threatened by a powerful and well-funded movement that seeks to destroy or at least diminish its role in American society. To these people, the public education system is their enemy. And the reason for their hostility is clear, they have simply learned that well-educated people are harder to hoodwink. Face it, if you know much about science, climate change concerns you…a lot. If you understand economics, supply-side/trickle-down theories don’t impress you. And if you have a basic understanding of the social studies, Muslims don’t scare you and immigrants in the grocery store don’t really bother you. In short, the educated are less likely to be fooled or scared into acting against their own self-interest–who knew?

So how are these powerful forces going about undermining public education? It’s a simple process actually so we can break it down step by step:

  1. Point out existing problems in public schools. As any human institution is bound to be imperfect, this didn’t prove hard for them to do. By ignoring successes and emphasizing failures anything can be made to look like a disaster.
  2. Cut funding for underperforming schools while imposing heavy bureaucratic burdens upon educators across the board. This was the basis behind the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, and it worked beautifully from that point of view.
  3. Now that problems have been spotlighted and even made worse, propose an alternative to public schools and give it a positive sounding name like “School Choice.”
  4. Offer parents “vouchers” that take money away from public schools and allow that money to be squandered at private schools that lack the infrastructure and resources to teach to the standards of a regular public school.
  5. Sit back and laugh as public schools continue to decline due to lack of funding while underperforming private schools teach students “facts” like science is a conspiracy or that Jesus wrote the Constitution.

Now, some might be shocked to learn that the people who are trying to destroy our public schools are often Republicans, but if you’re an educated person you’re probably not. After all, one of the leading proponents of “school choice,” the privately-educated Betsy DeVos, was Trump’s first and only pick to be Secretary of Education. She was a controversial choice to be sure. She’s a woman with no public school experience who’s lack of basic understanding of the Department of Education turned off so many senators that her confirmation was only passed with the intervention of Mike Pence. So why was she ramrodded into her position using such desperate measures by the GOP?

The pattern is clear; poll after poll shows that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to vote Republican. Now, the propaganda the right spews claims that this is because “liberal educators” are brainwashing our children. However, nothing of the kind is actually happening. Fields of education such as science, economics, and social studies are simply filled with people who are fascinated by the learning of facts–and facts are the propagandists’ worst enemy.

America has always been at our strongest when our public education system was robustly funded and vigorously supported. Think back to the 1950s, that golden age according to conservatives. Tens of thousands of World War II veterans were becoming the first in their families to earn college degrees thanks to the GI Bill. Also, the community college program spurred on by the President’s Commission on Higher Education was expanding rapidly in this period. And finally, Sputnik spurred investment in our public school’s science classrooms like never before. The results were obvious as Americans went on to land a man on the lunar surface just over a decade later, an accomplishment no other nation has duplicated to this day.

Democrats are now demanding a return to that mentality. Public education not seen as a drain on tax dollars but an investment in our nation’s future. Colleges existing to educate as many students as possible, not make as much profit off their debt as possible.

Other countries are passing us right now by leaps and bounds. Nations such as Germany are offering tax-funded higher education to anyone willing to do the work and earn a degree. Poorly educated Americans under the Republican model struggle to make ends meet and dare not raise a ruckus when treated unfairly. This might be a great way to create an exploitable labor force, but it’s no way to make America great again.

That’s why, as Democrats, we demand an equal, sound, effective, and fully funded public education program.

This includes prekindergarten, “K through 12,” post-secondary, and career vocational training. We know that quality education increases everyone’s economic well-being, promotes civic engagement, enriches our personal lives, and is necessary to adapt to technological progress. Public schools have always done their best to provide the skills and knowledge that are the foundation of a thriving democracy, and they need and will receive full Democratic support.

This is what Democrats stand for. And, as a former public school teacher, I sincerely hope you will stand with us come election day.

This is the fourth of ten articles the Comms team is writing on our 2018 What we Stand For (which maps 1-to-1 with the Articles of our 2018 Platform).  Facts and policies exist within the frame of morality, which is how the brain works.  Our challenge as Democrats is to state our progressive values better to our coworkers, neighbors, and family.  Our values are as American as apple pie, and the American flag means more than just supporting the troops or the status quo.  Our policies must be grounded in values and feeling and not just theory in order to connect to voters that may not yet be swayed to vote Democrat.  We must also understand the traditional conservative values of non-Dems (and Dems) better in order to improve our empathy and ability to connect (which is core to progressiveness).  This series of articles by our writers explores our values by offering some depth and context.