With Betsy DeVos as the new secretary of education, please consider the following. As government funding for public schools declines, apathy in public education grows until people are reminded that other countries are producing better educated people than we are. Today Finland and South Korea are top ranked while the United States is rated average.

Nothing new! Back in the mid 1830s, as support for public education in Massachusetts was weakening, comparisons were made to foreign countries like Prussia that were outperforming the state.

Thoughtful and effective changes began in 1837 when the governor of Massachusetts created the state board of education, to which Horace Mann was appointed as its first secretary. Mann agreed with former President Thomas Jefferson that a democracy can only exist with an educated public. Jefferson in 1786 wrote to George Washington that a well-educated public will “preserve freedom and happiness.” Mann went further to write, “Never will wisdom preside in the halls of the legislation … until Common Schools shall create a far-seeing intelligence and a purer morality than has ever existed among communities of men.”

He advocated public schools for all children, rich and poor, including “negroes,” of all backgrounds and beliefs. He even argued that students need to be motivated and become excited. He also suggested that vocal music be added to the curriculum for its physical health and moral influence, as it enhances classroom discipline. In his words, it “serve(s) as the great tranquilizer of the young … and grand mediator or peace-maker between men.”

Today, blame is often squarely placed on education for the widening gap between rich and poor, the expanding opioid crisis, domestic violence, and diminishing job security. In reality, it is due to lack of popular interest — public school funding is decreasing, school facilities are deteriorating, ever-larger classes become the norm, and high absentee rates continue unabated.

Insensitive and ineffective changes are already underway. Required national and state testing has become the norm for determining public schools’ success. Teachers are forced to teach to the tests as opposed to meeting their students’ needs. Teachers and students alike are held accountable if pupils do not achieve acceptable scores. If low-scoring schools do not meet the mean, they lose government funding. This is especially true for already crumbling and underfunded inner-city schools.

Other hazardous solutions to save taxpayer dollars in the name of improving public education include syphoning off public school funding for charter schools. In many instances, these have failed miserably, maybe because such schools lack accountability. Detroit presents such an example.

Public funds are also drained when government vouchers go to well-performing students to attend private schools. Even faith-based schools are eligible for government subsidies. For-profit online schools are also recipients of state and national funding.

As a lifetime educator, now retired, I believe the purpose of education should be to excite students about learning in an accepting and trusting atmosphere between them and their teacher and among all their classmates. Education must focus on allowing the student to feel accepted and comfortable in his or her own skin. This is accomplished when the teacher’s role is to inspire and motivate each student, to meet their unique needs, and to nurture their creativity. When teachers are not simply dispensers of information, when they are inspiring and nurturing, students learn to become independent thinkers to raise questions and how to seek answers. Standardized testing will no longer be necessary as students exceed such expectations.

Realizing that the job market is constantly changing, students need to be prepared to effectively use leisure time for relaxation, enjoyment, as well as true learning. This includes, among others, reading books, creating music and art, dancing, preparing food from scratch, relishing and preserving our environment, gardening, and hiking with friends. Therefore, it is imperative that arts and music be an equal part of the school curricula.

Finally, as children have been learning to appreciate one another throughout their primary and secondary school experience, they are developing necessary skills for participatory democracy. As they realize that for every freedom there is an equal responsibility, they will more likely partake in multiple aspects of our democratic society.

David Solmitz is an author, artist, and educator living in Waterville. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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