Why We Can’t Talk About Public Education

It is because no one actually gives a damn. Otherwise, we’d talk and fix it.

I started this column with the best of intentions.

This began with a long jeremiad explaining how Prince Edward County screwed it up for the rest of us during the Massive Resistance era, defunding their public schools and offering local vouchers in order to implement segregation de facto once it had been removed de jure by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Once the US Supreme Court reminded Prince Edward County that the statues to Confederate veterans on their courthouse green were second place trophies in their 1964 Griffin v. County School Board decision, Virginia embarked on a revision of their 1902 state constitution with a new one enshrining the right to a free and quality public education — thus fulfilling the vision of Thomas Jefferson in the pursuit of an educated citizenry.

I wanted to explain how Virginia’s localities get so mixed-up during budget season between local government and local school boards. How it is Richmond’s fault for not stepping up to their state constitutional mandate. How federal and state mandates put enormous pressure on local governments.

Yet how do you talk about a thing where the institution itself doesn’t believe there is anything wrong — other than a requirement for more funding, that is? Or only sees the problem when a certain strain of Spotsylvania Republican is democratically elected only to have their will un-democratically thwarted by the very people working in the institution itself?

One can almost hear the <click> as I step on the land mine, right?

Speaking with a friend a few weeks ago who is working in Washington, we reflected on how Capitol Hill used to be a place where Republicans and Democrats could still get a meal together and talk shop — especially among staffers. Today, doing so runs the risk of being photographed and being sold out as a collaborator. Even among staffers, such a juxtaposition could cost you the next promotion or even your present employment.

The problem runs deeper than this. Most parents are terrible parents and we all know it. Look around — their children are being raised by smartphones. Those same parents were probably raised by terrible parents themselves, with their parents forced to work jobs to buy stuff they didn’t want and didn’t need.

Consider that not terribly long ago, when there was a parent/teacher conference, it was the kid in the catbird seat. Today it is the teacher, put there by these same terrible parents who could give a tinker’s damn about their kid or their education — just the grade.

We celebrate mediocrity and call it accomplishment, then sell it on Etsy for a tidy profit only to do it again. We went through a whole pandemic with a lockdown. Show me the great art we produced in our spare time? Show me the great novel written by an American author? Show me the great poetry, music, or film?

There is an old saying taught to me by a former statewide elected official: “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”

Sure we could fix public education. Take about five years and a bit of elbow grease, but with people of goodwill who weren’t concerned about salaries or politics? We could focus the whole thing treating students as scholars rather than as test takers, hold them accountable for their accomplishments, and allow a good culture to replace all those administrators babysitting a bad culture. Of course, the sneaky part? You and I both know the problem isn’t public education. The problem is you. Me. Them. The VEA. Politicians. The heckler’s veto. Snotty social media comments. Mediocre teachers. Terrible parents. Kids who were cheated of their potential by terrible parents.

Whiny columnists.

The problem — dear reader — is that no one actually gives a damn about public education and deep down, we all know it.

If we did, maybe it would get better.

Maybe people would tutor their own kids. Read a book of their own. Improve their own souls and set better examples. Let the car cut you off and invite the next one over anyway. Ask what’s for homework. Tip your server well enough that they remember you next time. Hold students accountable for their own work. Quit setting terrible examples. Ask someone how they are doing and actually mean it. Turn off the internet and set down the phone. Have tough conversations. Touch grass. Ask that person why they believe differently than you and find that answer interesting for just five minutes. If your dinner is overcooked at the restaurant, let it go. Buy coffee for the person behind you. Take an interest in your kids. Call your grandmother. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Feed some birds. Consider others.

Just give a damn about the people around you — is it so simple and yet so hard?

I wanted to write about public education. I had a few ideas, but ideas are dangerous in today’s world. Why risk the mob? Besides — it’s not politics anymore if we can’t talk about it, right? Best to stay silent and let it run its course.

So I did something else. Which means it never got better.

Shaun Kenney is a columnist for the Fredericksburg Advance.