The most consequential words in American history is a simple if not astounding phrase that "all men are created equal." In our Declaration of Independence, it strikes to the very heart of our nation’s identity.
Ratified the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence immediately set America apart from the rest of the world. It further held that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And while it was a beacon of hope, there is no mention of a right to education. This may have troubled Thomas Jefferson, the document’s principal author. Three years later, in 1779, Jefferson introduced Bill 79 to Virginia General Assembly, proposing a system of public education to be tax-funded for "all the free children, male and female."
Jefferson’s “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" was far-reaching and radical for its time, but was restrictive. Jefferson was a slave owner, and slaves were not treated as people but as property. Women were not given the same rights as men.
Still, Jefferson was a proponent of public education, at least for some. In a letter to fellow Virginian George Wythe in 1786, he wrote, “No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”
A Foundation Eroded
Fast forward to today. Reading and watching the news, one could easily construe that this foundation for freedom and happiness has been eroded.
Jefferson believed that the purpose of education is to make a better us. Not only should our schools teach the fundamentals reading, writing, science and mathematics, but prepare our children for a life beyond the classroom.
And yet we learn of public school districts that have not given school teachers, the very people whom we place the responsibility of educating our youth and transforming them into future citizens, a raise in 10 years.
We read of classrooms where children must wear coats in the winter for the lack of heating, where they page through aged textbooks that fall apart in their hands, and where teachers, many of whom have to resort to second jobs to make ends meet, buy classroom supplies for their pupils.
Wages Have Fallen
We know that teacher’s wages and compensation continue to fall relative to comparable workers. When adjusted for education, experience, and demographic factors, teachers earned 4.3 percent less than other workers in 1996, while in 2015 the teacher wage gap had grown to 17 percent, according to a 2016 study by the Economic Policy Institute.
The Great Recession was particularly punishing to public schools. Most states cut funding, yet in 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data are available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were still providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
As of the current 2017-18 school year, at least 12 states have cut “general” or “formula” funding for elementary and secondary schools by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade, according to the CBPP.
What Would I Tell a Company?
The question begs itself. When we see teachers (and parents) demonstrating for better pay and better school funding in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona, what should we take from that?
I was recently asked a variation of that question by a newspaper reporter from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He wanted to know how I viewed the issue of school funding as a site selection consultant. Was Oklahoma getting a black eye because of the teacher demonstrations?
And what would I tell a company that had engaged my consultancy, Barber Business Advisors, for purposes of location advisory about this issue of funding for public education? Well, I would probably say something like this:
“Well, money matters. Poor kids who go to better-funded schools are more likely to graduate from high school and gain skills and make better wages, whether they learn a trade at a community college or go on to a four-year university. Common sense tells you that, but the research also shows it.
“So if you truly believe that people are your greatest assets, then let’s look to those places that support public education. They don't have to be "rich" communities, but places that have a tradition of providing good education to kids. We know that grades k-12 are the integral ‘learning years,’ which will prove vital in developing your future workforce, your future pipeline of talent. Let’s never forget that.”
Unfortunately, I’m not so great with sound bites. I didn’t tell the reporter anything like this. I think what I said was that if we were looking at a state during a site search project where teachers were demonstrating for better pay and increased school funding, “we would take note of that. It may very well be of primary concern.”
An Honorable Profession
I should have also told that reporter that school teachers don’t become school teachers to make a lot of money. They want to change lives for the better. They want to help young people grow and become improved versions of themselves.
Now some teachers are quite effective at this. They’re really good at imparting knowledge and prompting us to want to learn. We tend to remember those teachers well into our adulthood as they made a difference, even if a small one.
And invariably there are those teachers who are not cut out for the work. They probably should have chosen other professions even if their intentions were good and honorable. They usually figure this out for themselves and leave the profession.
(I’m quite certain that I could never control a classroom of second graders, unless I had a sufficient supply rope. And that ultimately wouldn’t work so well.)
A Loss of Trust and Respect
It’s also apparent to me that some legislators and policymakers must hold teachers to a degree of contempt. How else can we explain such an erosion of funding and respect? I have to believe that in some places, public education truly is under assault.
The Center for Michigan reports that enrollment in schools of education in that state have dropped by more than 50 percent in the last few years. The upshot, fewer people want to be teachers. It’s not the vaunted profession that it once was.
This follows a general trend, shown in polls, that Americans have lost trust in their institutions, which have served as the pillars of government and capitalism. We now have a jaundiced view of our public schools, courts, banks, businesses, political parties and the media. The exception is the military. From an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in January, 87 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in our military.
In the last few weeks, I have met with economic developers from Kentucky and Oklahoma. Some have told me privately that they very much sympathize with the teachers' plight over pay and school funding.
These same economic developers understand the connection between education and workforce preparedness. Many companies, particularly manufacturers, complain that they cannot find enough people with the job skills needed to fill certain openings.
This is should concern to us all. It is our duty as a society to prepare future generations for what may come. Jefferson understood then what apparently too many elected officials do not comprehend now -- that public education is the answer.
No other sure foundation can be devised.