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Public schools are the starting point for bridging our divides

Public schools are the starting point for bridging our divides
© Gerry Images

President-elect Biden reportedly will nominate Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaTo the new administration: Declare détente in K-12 education wars Biden rolls out group of deputy secretary nominees Parenting and polling in education's new normal MORE as Secretary of Education, a former elementary school teacher and public school graduate who is Connecticut Education Commissioner. An imminent debate over reopening America’s schools will push the Department of Education into the spotlight and will be an important point in the new president’s desire to heal our divided country. 

In the nation’s prior cultural and constitutional struggles, public education has been a central aspect of bringing people together and inching closer to a more perfect union.

In its infancy, America was a mere experiment in a world ruled by kings and queens. Handing political power to common people was a radical idea. The Founders feared that America would fail without targeted intervention. Public education was the intervention that could ensure common people received the knowledge and skills to govern themselves, find the common good, and resist tyranny.

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George Washington urged Congress to act, writing that no “duty [is] more pressing” than “the common education of a portion of our youth from every quarter.” Thomas Jefferson similarly implored: “Above all things, … the education of the common people [must] be attended to; convinced that on this good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” 

This thinking led the Continental Congress to weave public education into America’s foundational fabric two years before the Constitutional Convention even met. Needing to establish rules for the creation and growth of states, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which required each town in the territories to divide itself into 36 lots, reserving the center lot for public schools. The rationale was explicit: “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” 

Those commitments helped education and self-government to expand rapidly. By the early 1800s, this new democracy provided more education access than any other country in the world, except Prussia. The internal contradiction of slavery, however, eventually brought the nation to a Civil War. Following the war, education once again was central to reuniting the country. To ensure universal access to public education, Congress required readmitted Confederate states, and all new states, to guarantee public education in their state constitutions. 

Those efforts brought public schools to places they had never been, established a pathway to meaningful political participation for millions, and symbolized the possibility of common ground for people divided by race, war and politics. 

While Jim Crow segregation sought to quash African American citizenship and democracy, its fall led to the nation’s second reckoning with slavery, which again began in our public schools.  

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It was there that the NAACP leveraged American ideas of equality and citizenship. And it was there that the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, proclaimed the foundation of our democracy rested. Brown paved the way for the litany of civil rights expansions that followed in the coming decades.

Today, our nation stands at another precipice. Racial inequality in schools, housing, the economy and criminal justice system remains alarmingly high. Likewise, the hollowing out of the white working class and rural communities has accelerated in recent decades. Those realities, combined with ever-coarsening political rhetoric, have exposed and prodded divisions so deep that they test the ability of our system of government to function and persist.

Our public schools, as they so often have been in the past, are the place to rebuild faith and close gaps — cultural and empirical. Our schools can do that by finally and fully living up to a key concept in the text of our state education clauses: public schools “open to all.”

Unfortunately, whether it is race, sexual orientation, gender, poverty, politics or religion, too many today feel that our public schools — in the way they operate and teach — belong to some other group. Addressing these feelings is crucial for our schools and our national conscience. We cannot resolve these anxieties overnight, any more than we did in prior eras. But tackling these differences and anxieties is what our schools were designed to do.  

Today, that will require us to commit to opening our schools to tough conversations about the history we teach, the values we instill, and the equality we must provide.

For this conversation to matter, it will require free speech in the fullest sense in the 16,800 school districts across the nation — even when it entails things that people on both sides do not want to hear. If we can listen to each other, we can find common ground — not because there is perfect agreement but because we care enough to have the conversation. If each side can hear one another with enough respect, they can know that our schools are open to all.  

Miguel Cardona’s term as education secretary will be critical to ameliorating inadequate funding, privatization, a hollowed-out teacher pipeline, segregation and more, but also healing a divided country. 

Derek Black is a professor of law and the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law and civil rights. He is the author of “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter at @DerekWBlack.