We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ Declaration of Independence
Americans hold these words in sacred regard. Written in the 18th century, they reflected the ethos of the Enlightenment, a time when the old world order was changing. The automatic deference to incontrovertible moral authority was giving way to something more democratic.
The burgeoning sense of egalitarianism and individualism spawned a national philosophy: The American Dream. This is what makes us truly unique and exceptional – anyone, regardless of the circumstances of his birth, can succeed or fail solely on his own merits. Over the years, our reality has slowly crept toward the ideal – a day when all men means all men. Women too.
We are living in a striking example of this dream – the remarkable rise of Barack Obama to President of the United States. Born to mixed-race parents in a time when such a marriage was still illegal in parts of our nation, born to an African absent father, raised in Kansas, Hawaii, and Indonesia. His middle name is the last name of a tyrant we recently deposed.
The unlikely can happen.
But these stories are remarkable because of their unlikelihood. If we truly believe that a kid born in Appalachia = a kid born in a housing project = a kid born in a verdant suburb, there has to be an equalizer.
Enter: Public Education.
In the US, kids are required to attend school, in many states from ages 6 to 18. Public education has evolved over the years; tensions have surrounded the details like the balance of local vs. centralized control. Currently, education professionals and some parents are embroiled in a debate of the implementation of national standards. But the overarching goal has been to equip every child with the tools needed to succeed in the world.
Believing this is true makes it easier for people like me to continue believing in the American Dream. If I base my judgment on the world I see out my window, we’re doing great. Even though I’ve chosen to send my kids through private schools, I live in a fantastic public school district. I see it in my neighbors, I see it at the grocery store, I read about them in the paper.
It can be jarring when that bubble bursts.
“I came in with the perspective: educate, educate, educate,” Baggett said. “That has changed. These kids have issues, we find the resources, we address it and, then, we educate.”
Is it at all realistic to believe that Mr. Baggett’s kids are in the same academic place as my kids?
I believe that fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same thing, it means everyone gets what they need. But when these schools are feeding, clothing, and nurturing these kids who need it most, they can’t possibly have time to teach them the depth and nuance of algebra or biology or world history or To Kill A Mockingbird. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day and some of these kids are fighting a strong undertow.
I simply don’t believe a diploma is a diploma is a diploma. Where that diploma comes from matters.
As I was pondering this post, I saw a story in The Washington Post – the majority of children attending public school in the US are considered low-income.
(Before you ask, low-income is defined as being at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. Today, that would mean a family of four making $44,863. That’s the cutoff for the free or reduced lunch program.)
It’s time we decide whether we the American Dream is real or not. If it is, we have work to do.
Like anything else, the first step is admitting that we have a problem. This one, I believe, is self-evident.