Public education is the 'great equalizer' for America

How many times have you heard someone say, "Only in America can one grow up to be president," or talk about something called the "American Dream?"

What is it in our country that creates and nourishes this attitude for so many people? What makes so many people believe that they have the same opportunity for success as the next guy? Clearly, our democratic way of life. But what makes that work? What institution promises "equal access" and delivers it in such a fashion that people truly believe in the promise of America?

In case you have not thought about it, that promise of equal access and opportunity is made by having a free public educational system. That's right, your local public school is the "Great Equalizer." The equalizer that creates and fosters the beliefs of many Americans.

Many students take great advantage of the educational opportunities presented by the public school system. Typically, those students have the support of their parents. Those parents make sure their kids enroll in appropriate classes, they make sure they go to school every day, they make sure homework is completed and spend extra time preparing their kids for tests. These are the same parents who take the time out of their busy schedules to attend the school's open house and talk regularly with teachers to keep abreast of performance and progress. These students graduate with skills, are accepted to the nation's most prestigious universities and win scholarships.

On the other end of the spectrum, the public schools have students attend who don't take advantage of a free public education. They don't take appropriate course work, their class selection is based upon what their friends take instead of what is in their own best interest, they don't come regularly, their parents don't check on their performance or progress, the kids never seem to have time for homework and their parents cannot find time to come to an open house at school.

How is it that kids coming from the same neighborhoods with the same socioeconomic backgrounds, attend the same schools, have the same teachers, use the same books and turn out so differently? In a nutshell, it's called parenting.

While parenting makes the difference in the success or failure of individual students, a new threat is facing students who do take advantage of a good public education. One threat is a lack of funding proposed by people who would do away with the "Great Equalizer." These people would like to see public tax dollars support private schools.

The pools show that the vast majority of Americans support public education. They understand that a free public education does even the playing field. They understand that public education guarantees both opportunity and access for those willing to work for it.

The polls show quite dramatically that parents support public education, that satisfaction is very high. In fact, parents often give a grade of B+ to the school their children attend.

When questioned about vouchers, parents are not supportive of money going to private schools. They don't support public to private vouchers. They do, however, support public to public school vouchers.

Parents have been able to sift through the rhetoric; they can do the math. Subtracting the cost of the voucher from the cost of tuition for a private school leaves too much for most people to make up. So they understand this concept of vouchers for what it really is - a way for the more affluent to have their private school tuition subsidized.

Adding to this threat, the polls indicate a backlash to the new academic standards being adopted by the states not being appropriate for all students. This is clearly occurring in states that use tests for promotion/retention and high school graduation.

Another threat to public schools is "instructional capacity." The ability of teachers to teach the new academic standards. In this country, we use "Pier Theory" when it comes to teacher training. That is, we take teachers to the end of the pier and push them off. They either sink or swim.

In order for teachers to be successful, in order for public education to be successful, in order for students to achieve, teachers must have parental support and involvement. They must receive pre-service training from colleges of education that prepares them to teach the new standards. They must have ongoing support in professional development in content and methods of instruction as well as material support for their classrooms. All too often, professional development in education is more about remediation than enhancement because of a lack of content training in college.

Because of low pay accompanied by low prestige, the nation has been facing a teacher shortage. Currently in Clark County, we are 16 math teachers short in high school. In order for public education to remain the "Great Equalizer," the state must ensure a competitive salary package for teachers that will not only attract qualified teachers to the state, but will encourage them to stay. Without these teachers, public education is really threatened. And the promise of equal access and opportunity will also be threatened.

Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a member of the Nevada Board of Education. His views do not necessarily reflect those of other members. His e-mail address is


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