I have recently been listening and watching the lack of bipartisanship among local, state and national governments. The negative rhetoric that goes back and forth between political parties seems to prevent them from working together for the common good of all. We may have lost sight of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, a message that hung on the wall of my father’s law office. President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
I grew up in the time period where public service was encouraged through Kennedy’s programs such as Vista and the Peace Corps and other public service opportunities. The greatest generation worked toward and encouraged future generations to improve the quality of life across our great country through public service. The idea of public service was a big reason I became a teacher.
It recently occurred to me that we are losing the values of the greatest generation, my mother’s and father’s generation, which lived through the depression and fought a World War. These men and women seemed to understand the need for hard work and for providing a helping hand. They saw the value of public services that supported the common good of all Americans. It seems to me that public services such as public education, law enforcement, and firefighting are all partisan arguments now. The idea that everything is a business and should be treated as such, with winners and losers, is breaking the covenant between the civil servant and the public.
My dad and my father-in-law were members of the greatest generation. They were World War II veterans and leaders in their communities. They never once complained about taxes that supported their community. My father-in-law would say “you never want to pay the firefighter until your house is on fire and then you will pay the firefighter anything.” You see, they both understood the value and importance of a high quality education, public safety and key public services. They did not see these “public services” as politics as usual, but as services needed to provide a high quality of life in a community. Both men instilled these values in their children. Don’t get me wrong. They were political and, in fact, my father ran for political office. For sure, they both complained about taxes; just not the “quality of life” taxes that provided public services. I guess it’s because they returned from a World War where they felt lucky to come home at all. My Dad earned a law degree using the GI Bill. The fact that his fellow countrymen felt that they should invest in returning veterans made an impact on him, his future and, consequently, my future. He taught us to “pay it forward.”
I remember these values because of my experiences as a youngster and a young parent. I remember as a very young boy when my father decided our small town needed a swimming pool and tennis courts. He walked the neighborhoods to raise the money so that we could learn to swim, play tennis, and have a positive place to go where we were safe. I also remember the tennis courts had a curb that doubled as an ice rink in the winter, very efficient for the times. I’ll never forget the time my youngest child was playing outside and walked to the corner of our block and a deputy sheriff stopped and brought her home. While I was a bit embarrassed, the deputy was just making sure everything was ok with my daughter. He could have kept driving but he provided the extra that improves the quality of life in a community.
As our great country goes through another round of debate on school choice, school funding, and the next silver bullet of school reform, we stand to lose time that could be spent collaborating on what is best for all learners in our country. I find it so interesting that in today’s society people are so quick to tell schools that they are failing so they can justify taking more funding from public schools. However, the fact is that public schools are doing better than ever with their learners.
Yes, I have seen change in public education and our profession has a moral obligation to help every child find success. I’ve watched public education become more inclusive with special education students, which was much needed and life changing for all learners.I’ve seen schools use data to increase graduation rates and test scores of students of color, and to close achievement gaps found in our student populations. We are not where we want to be, but gaps are closing across this country despite the loss of revenue and an ever-changing set of state and federal goals as we all strive to fulfill the promise of President George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind initiatives.
In my opinion, public service should not be discussed within the political realm. It is my strong belief that funding for public services such as public education, clean drinking water, sound electrical grids, and public safety drive a high quality of life in a community, attracting people to live and do business. My father and my father-in-law, one a democrat and one a republican, agreed on the importance of such funding. Both men were business leaders but did not see every service as being market driven or fee based. They worked for the common good of society, not merely for the good of a few.
Today, I see the values of the greatest generation slipping away, especially supporting our public servants because they are there to serve the common good of our democracy. When I entered education in 1980, I felt that my local community valued what I did for their children and appreciated my hard work to help every child, in partnership with their parents, find a positive pathway to lifelong success.
When was the covenant between the public servant and the public broken? I’m not sure. I have been a superintendent in two states over a 16-year period. I have had to reduce expenses to meet inflationary costs in 14 of those years. Each of those districts became much more efficient with school spending by focusing on the needs our children. Our learners never suffered, but staff was consistently asked to do more with fewer resources and they continue to rise to the challenge and maintain quality educational opportunities for all learners.
Unfortunately, it seems positive results have never really mattered. I only heard the public outcry if test scores went down and more money was withheld. Yet, if test scores went up or achievement gaps were reduced, there was silence and no additional funds were allocated. Those results went largely ignored and I was asked again to do more with less. I believe that all of us want and need our public servants, whether they are teachers, police officers, judges, or firemen. A public servant is not the enemy; however, if we continue to rupture the covenant between the public and the public servant, the self-fulfilling prophecy will play out in communities across the country where public services are compromised, including public education the very cornerstone of our democracy.