These are tough days for public schools. Districts across the state are facing funding cuts while legacy retirement costs explode in the next few years, which will extend the fiscal pain. School leaders are forced to make incredibly tough decisions regarding curricular offerings, consolidations, furloughs, and cuts in extra-curricular activities.
There are plenty of reasons to be worried about education and to fret about the future, especially as charter and magnet schools continue to erode limited tax support for our public schools. It is especially worrisome for new and prospective educators, particularly those graduating this spring as countless districts are cutting teachers.
Against this frightening backdrop it is important to be reminded of some history. We have not always had free public schools open and available to all in Pennsylvania or in the United States. Think about that for a moment. Can you imagine a community without public schools?
Much of what informed the framers of the United States Constitution can be traced to William Penn. His views on religious freedom, a representative form of government, and the value of education profoundly impacted the founders of the new American experiment in democracy.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s first free and public educational system that was founded in Upper Darby. It was born of the spirit of the American Revolution that was nurtured right here in the Commonwealth. Yet it was an idea that took more than a half-century after the founding of the country to be realized and 119 years after the death of William Penn.
In recognition of this milestone, I invited Lou DeVleiger, superintendent of Upper Darby Schools, to visit Susquehanna University for an occasion where we honor our liberal arts students who feel called to enter the teaching profession. He was outstanding in describing for our anxious soon-to-be graduates his own call to education, the extraordinary impact outstanding teachers have on students and families, the need for teachers to keep learning and of the value of humor for keeping it all in perspective.
Upper Darby today is a large, diverse district that serves students who hail from 60 countries and from homes where 70 languages are spoken. In one poignant story, DeVleiger described a new immigrant student, who was ably and admirably learning English. He said, “Mr. DeVleiger, what does it mean to be ‘pretty ugly’?”
The funding and the state of public education today might be well described by the phrase “pretty ugly.” We are bombarded by reports that indicate that the U.S. place in international educational comparisons is dropping. Measures for educational attainment, standardized test scores and drop-out rates are everywhere. Taken all together and accompanied by the current fiscal challenges that dominate news coverage, it is clear that the list of problems confronting school leaders is perhaps aptly described as “pretty ugly.”
Not a pretty picture for our new graduates and their counterparts. Yet Lou Devleiger made it clear that education remains a vibrant and special profession where teachers make a great difference. He lifted up these bright and committed budding teachers with his words and his example.
As I closed the program, I reflected on the historic importance of the creation of free public schools. Upper Darby led the way in Pennsylvania and by any measure, public schools have had an incalculable positive benefit. I told our future teachers that in his day Thomas Jefferson called farming the most noble profession. Were Jefferson alive today, I postulated that while he would continue to revere farming, I believe he would call teaching the most noble profession of the 21st century.
So while our public educational system is under fire on countless fronts, let us not lose sight of all the good that teachers and schools have brought to our nation. Let us also not forget the critical role our founders imagined for education. Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be both free and ignorant in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
We need our public schools because they create the educated citizens necessary to sustain this experiment in democracy that started here in Pennsylvania 236 years ago. We need great teachers, like those Lou Devlieger inspired at Susquehanna, to take up this noble work.
Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.