Free public education has been a core value in this nation for more than a century. The success of hundreds-of-millions-of students over time is attributable to access to free public education, open to all. Whether native-born or immigrant, rich or poor, male or female, the opportunity, and requirement, to attend school is treasured by generations of families.
In the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives included many education programs – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the District of Columbia Public Education Act of 1966, for example – all championed by “Mr. Education,” Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Many legislative efforts had failed prior to that time, but under Senator Morse’s leadership, landmark education bills were passed, and funded, by Congress. That also was the decade that community colleges were founded, affirmative action programs established, school construction supported, and curriculum expanded to reflect a growing diversity in our communities.
Sadly, those Great Society initiatives were the first, and the last, real federal support for public education. Nothing as sweeping has been passed since then; subsequent legislation mandating standardized testing and Common Core has sparked furious debate among educators and the community. Even more insidious is the shift, across the country, to divert resources away from public education and into other programs, the growth of private schools, and the resulting inequities in educational opportunity, especially for children of lower and middle income families.
In a recent conversation, UCLA Professors Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara, leading experts on the law and policy of educational opportunity, discussed the failure of federal support for education, and the segregation of opportunity for many young Latinos and other immigrants. The move of public funds to charter schools reinforces racial and school segregation, as well as housing choices. Even within some public schools, isolation of children by language and ethnicity reinstitutes barriers that supposedly were removed by the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. I asked the professors to expand on the language issue. If a Latino child simply is categorized by birth language – Spanish – the cultural identity of that child – Peruvian, Guatemalan, Mexican, Brazilian – is ignored or lost. Professor Gandara responded that, while bilingual education is important to success, so is what she called “bi-literacy,” or the knowledge not just of another language, but of another culture. She gave an example of a young financial advisor of Middle Eastern heritage, who did not speak Arabic fluently, but whose clients chose him by virtue of his ability to interact with the respect and tradition of the Arabic culture. That’s “bi-literacy,” which may not be learned in textbooks, but it just as important to success and understanding. “Bi-literacy” needs to be part of the public education curriculum, too.
Funding to maintain a strong public education system, like Fairfax County Public Schools, is vitally important for all in our community. Absent the federal funding provided by the Great Society initiatives, we must work with Governor McAuliffe, the General Assembly, and other Virginia counties to earmark more state funds for K-12 education programs, so that children today will have the same opportunities available to previous generations.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]