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Expert opinion

Step up with action and support for education, not thoughts and prayers

by Maria Ferguson

If the American public wants strong public schools for all students, we will need more than good intentions supported by inequitable and inconsistent funding schemes.

When I reviewed the findings from this year’s PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, I was immediately struck by how familiar the narrative thread felt. The findings followed a familiar arc, one that reveals good intentions, confusion, anger, pathos, and a just a touch of narcissism. Shakespeare? Greek tragedy? The political climate in Washington? Yes, yes, and yes. Not surprisingly, the 2019 poll reflects the angst that has permeated most aspects of public life in America.

Poll respondents this year included public school parents, the general public, and public school teachers. The inclusion of teachers in the poll adds a new and provocative dimension to the findings. By sharing their personal thoughts and views on the profession, teacher strikes, and the future of public education, they provide a helpful reality check to the responses from parents and the general public. Having said that, the poll portrays America’s teachers as a pretty discontented lot.

A majority (60%) say they are unfairly paid and would vote to go on strike for higher pay (55%). Half also say they’ve seriously considered leaving the profession in recent years, and slightly more than half (55%) would not want their children to follow them into the profession. Sadly, these and other findings are consistent with a 2016 national teacher survey done by the organization I lead, the Center on Education Policy.

The 2019 poll reflects the angst that has permeated most aspects of public life in America.

As the mother of a young man who is studying to be a teacher, I am ashamed to admit that I share their concerns. Despite a career devoted to improving public education, I don’t want my child to experience the struggles I have seen so many young teachers experience. I don’t want to see him broken by the disrespect and lack of appreciation. My own hypocrisy echoes the sentiments of many of this year’s poll respondents. Although parents and the general public overwhelmingly support higher pay for teachers and more funding for schools, they don’t support the kind of funding increases that will accomplish those goals. Instead, a majority would rather follow a quid pro quo strategy where more school funding comes from cuts in other publicly funded programs. Relax America, you can have more money for schools . . . you just need to give up recycling and senior care services. Using revenue from state lotteries, legal recreational marijuana, and sports gambling are also popular options among parents, teachers, and adults. It’s good to know the adults in the room have good feelings about pot and gambling.

Year after year, parents and the public express support for public education and give high marks to their own local schools, but that means very little if they are not willing to acknowledge what it takes to maintain the promise of public education. Like most publicly supported entities, great schools don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t stay great unless there is investment on all fronts: adequate public funding, private investments, community involvement, and parental engagement. While the poll shows that parents and the public think they are supportive and caring stewards of public education, I would argue whatever sentiment they do have for public education is mostly directed to their own schools in their own communities. Public education for the greater all, not so much.

Founding Father John Adams said in the years before independence: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.” His words still ring true today. Educators and students who are trying to do their best in underfunded, low-performing schools are achingly similar to victims of mass violence. They don’t need thoughts and prayers. They need action and support. If the American public wants strong public schools for all students, we will need more than good intentions supported by inequitable and inconsistent funding schemes.


Maria Ferguson

Maria Ferguson is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and the Washington view columnist for Phi Delta Kappan magazine. Maria can be reached at mferguson@gwu.edu.


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