Point of view

Driving the debate over the schools

November 22, 2011 

— With the contentious 2011 Wake County school board elections behind us, many might wonder what the fighting was all about. It now is time to clear the smoke from the campaign battlefield and consider a greater, common good aimed toward the purpose of public schools. To do so requires taking a timeout to identify and clarify the public school issues about which we so passionately disagree.

Though we educate children for a variety of reasons, ultimately the purpose of public schools is to preserve our democratic republic, just as, though we procreate for a variety of reasons, ultimately it is to preserve the human race.

Over a period of nearly 35 years working as a part of Wake County's public schools, supporting student learning, I've learned a great deal myself. Of all the lessons I've learned, there are two that I consider important enough to share.

First, there are no new arguments or solutions in the battles over the direction and future of public schools. Generations, technology and politicians change, but the arguments about public education do not because they are in essence the debate about public values. These arguments are as old as our republic.

Second, the governing processes we use to decide how to educate the next generation, what to teach them, how to distribute educational opportunity, who should go to school where and with whom, and how to pay for public schools reflect the social, political and economic character of America. Trying to change schools is really about trying to change America, a process which the Founders made very difficult on purpose.

Public value conflicts are clearly expressed in campaigns, and later at board tables, just as we have seen play out in Wake County. The conflicts can be grouped around four big ideas.

It's about how we preserve liberty, personal freedom and individual differences.

It's about how we forge a sense of "we" and of connection and of belonging in a nation of individuals predicated on the principle of self-interest.

It's about how we struggle with issues of fairness, justice and equality in a nation less homogenous than nearly any other.

And finally, it's about how we expect a market economy to work in our lives, an economy central to the founding of our commercial republic.

These ideas and associated public value conflicts play out in public schools across our country. And they are critically important to all of us because, as Abraham Lincoln observed, "The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next." Public schools truly are about the future of our nation, not just the future for our children.

The debates about public schools aren't about educating children as much as they are about attempting to resolve public value conflicts and influence the future. Is there any wonder why school board elections and actions of school boards elicit such passion?

The current Wake County Board of Education owes much to the previous board. The new board that will be seated on Dec. 6 will owe much to the current board. It is my hope that as the newly elected board takes office its members will focus not on winning or losing, and that they will move from campaigning to governing, focusing on the purpose of public schools.

For if we are to progress toward the good life we seek for ourselves and for our children, all board members must reflect upon the admonition delivered to elected officials by Mark Twain: "If you find yourself in the majority, stop and think about it."

Del Burns is a former superintendent of the Wake County Public School System. He is education director for GMK Associates and co-author, with Phil Boyle, of "Preserving the Public in Public Schools."

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