Educators, public education is political. Now what are you going to do about it?
Education is unlike any other institution in our country. Born out of a need to educate our children, a need greater than what an individual, family or community could provide, our current system offers more than just a service. It provides a way of being and thinking in society.
But because of its radical and unique power to transform our society, public education is extremely subject to political influence and interference, which I, as a former history teacher, know only Very good.
Personally, I interpret politics to mean any activity that promotes a particular interest of status or authority. Often these interests clash with public education. During the Cold War, for example, the federal government and local policies encouraged an increase in science, technology, and patriotic education in service to the state.
Many will disagree with this interpretation.
Some educators like to see their classrooms and schools as silos separated from the world. In my opinion, this is a privilege and a fault of some teachers in public education. The truth is, the majority of public school students, who are students of color, do not have this privilege. They are affected every day by political messages that leave them invisible, unheard and unacceptable.
Other teachers understand this, and every day progressive, anti-racist, and abolitionist educators like myself work tirelessly and strategically to reject and transform this type of school experience. We do this because we love public education and we recognize that to bring about this transformation requires an understanding of politics.
Tell the truth to power
The tension in the public education debate is between those who would like to transform it to be more inclusive and those who seek to retain the traditional model which defends a myopic and hierarchical view of society. It’s political.
My view of public education is different. I see a system where students and educators share and acquire knowledge in learning spaces where critical thinking, exploration, respect and community are essential.
In my state of North Carolina, the new legislation proposed by the general assembly, called HB324 “Ensuring Dignity and Non-Discrimination in Schools,” reads like a litany of statements that seek to prevent this view. In particular, HB324 would ban classrooms from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist and that people are inherently racist or sexist, whether consciously or unconsciously. In a statement, our state’s superintendent of public education argued that the intention of the bill is to “provide reasonable expectations” for civil speech in classroom discussions.
On paper, the bill may seem fairly innocuous, until you understand it in context. In 2020, North Carolina revised the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum standards, which now call for the examination of history through behavioral and social science perspectives. They provide tips for educators to help students understand the lasting impact of systemic racism on Blacks, Indigenous people, and people of color in the United States, and their acts of resistance. This language has led to conservative backlash and accusations that the new social studies curriculum promotes an anti-American agenda. These arguments are based on a fear that public education will become more inclusive.
Education is different from schooling. Schooling is about training, guidance or discipline derived from a learning experience, often linked to social roles and responsibilities. In the United States, schooling has often centered the voices and values of the majority group on others. So when public schools are targeted by politicians, as in HB324, it is often based on perceived school practices rather than education.
This is why educators like me seek to be transformational leaders in our state’s political system. Laws such as North Carolina’s HB324 and other similar bills are barriers to meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students in public education.
If politicians use their platform to make decisions, then educators need to respond. I can’t speak for all educators, of course, but those with whom I am part of the community and the coalition want public education to be spaces that teach the whole truth and reject all forms of fanaticism. and hatred that deny the voice of marginalized groups in an attempt to whitewash history. We refuse to lie to our students because we know that learning history and truth is not always comfortable, but necessary to create lasting impact.
We also don’t want our students to feel comfortable with the trauma of others. We want our program, instruction, resources, and professional development to include the voices, experiences, and perspectives of all Americans, especially those from marginalized groups. We believe that an informed electorate is the key to maintaining a true democracy. And finally, we want to build community and relationships through collaboration, problem solving and learning. When I read bills like HB324, I ask myself three questions: Who will these laws harm? Who will be protected by these laws? And why is legislative capital spent on these laws?
Treating and answering these questions honestly should be enough for all educators to understand that our education system is indeed political. Now the question becomes: what are you going to do about it? I do not know about you, but I am ready to speak the truth to political power.