Dr. Jimmie Chadwell, Supt. Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD on the value of public schools

Recently, I noticed the following in a list of financial planning questions: “Do you want to give your grandchildren the benefit of a private school education?” I was baffled. What about the benefit of a public school education? Why would there be a bias that a non-public system is superior? Now I respect a family’s choice to send their children to any school that meets their children’s needs, but this question clearly (and falsely) implies a nationwide deficiency of public schools. Every choice we make has costs and benefits. The choice to attend public schools has distinct benefits that cannot be replicated with any other options.
Sadly, as public school educators, we must consider the current perception of public schools in our nation. When the vast majority of Americans have attended and flourished through the public school system, it seems absurd that we would need to endure a constant onslaught of criticism. The climate of trust that has existed for generations is eroding because of decades of abuse and criticism coupled with reductions in support. We hear some state and national leaders define our schools as “failing” and our educators as “deficient.” Those who have never taught in a classroom or even attended a public school are pushing to privatize and outsource our work. We are described as a governmental monopoly, government schools, and even socialists.
Most educators endure these ridiculous criticisms because educators are remarkably positive and, frankly, too busy doing the real work of meeting children’s needs to fight these absurd battles. If you listen to some of the ridiculous things being spouted at these government hearings, you would consider them nonsensical or worse. I believe the time has now passed that we can simply ignore these incorrect and grievous claims.
This week I spent a few days in Austin and, after meeting with education leaders from across the state, the sad reality was reaffirmed that we are in a new day in which we (like no educators before us) will have to convince others of the advantageous qualities of our education system. We must tell our story of opportunity, and achievement, and support, and improvement, and success because there are very vocal forces working directly and blatantly against us. So what are these benefits?
  1. We take all children without judgment regardless of who they are, what their demographics are, or their previous academic performance. Not only do we admit them, we keep them. We adopt them as our own and we don’t stop educating them. No matter the circumstances, the system keeps reaching out to support and to educate.
  2. Our educators are highly qualified and highly effective. The skills that are demonstrated every day in EMS classrooms should be broadcast for the world to see. Educators are better trained and more prepared now than any other time in our country’s history.
  3. We offer a broad continuum of high-quality academic courses (college, career and technology, AP, dual credit), a myriad of athletic and fine arts activities, and other extracurricular activities to develop the interests of every student.
  4. Our facilities are designed to support learning at all levels. We pride ourselves on not having any child in a portable classroom. We plan for growth and we manage our budget to support growing and evolving instructional needs. Our schools are built to higher building standards and offer some of the safest structures in our community. From top to bottom, inside and out, our facilities and resources offer what our students need to be successful.
  5. We are stronger through our diversity. We don’t look for opportunities to exclude, we include. We embrace these differences and celebrate our uniqueness. We are not afraid. Our hearts go out to those children who struggle financially or who are learning English for the first time, but such challenges just make us work harder to help them succeed. We do not allow those characteristics to define their ability to perform at the highest levels. We don’t over focus on what restrains them, but rather on what motivates them.
  6. We represent a public trust, a promise to our citizens and future generations. The Texas State Constitution, in Article 7, Section 1, states, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
  7. In many areas, EMS included, we define the community. When people think of the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw community, they think of our schools. Our history is rich and our foundations are solid. Our accountability is not primarily to the state and feds; we are accountable first to this community and to continuing the legacy that built who we are today.
  8. Some make the ridiculous conclusion that public school students must not perform well. This is the biggest fallacy of all. Our students are incredible. They do perform at high levels and they leave EMS schools and achieve in many different areas. From senators to professional athletes to Hollywood actresses, there are famous EMS students succeeding around this world. But equally, EMS graduates have filled important positions in industry, the medical field, engineering, the military, and of course in our classrooms. Many of these graduates come back to this area to raise their children. In some schools, we have 3-4 generations of EMS families. When I shake the hand of every graduate in this school district, I am inspired by what they will achieve.
In 1785, John Adams said, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one-mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” So what happened? How do we go from a Founding Father of our great nation defining public education as our country’s cornerstone to today’s rhetoric of those who would dismantle and privatize? This has been happening for several decades and the question confounds me. While purporting the desire to help poor children, they would disrupt the very system that is saving them. And educators serve children under the ire of overt criticism, with fewer resources, and increased challenges. Why? Because we are here for the children. We are here to fulfill that public trust. Many of us feel called to this work. It is just what we do. We don’t have time to philosophize, class starts in 5 minutes.
I have to admit that I hesitated to write this, because you may consider this a very gloomy message from your superintendent. However, part of my job is to be a good steward of your trust and to not share the gravity of the very active and vocal attack on public education would be negligent. You need to know the truth and how important it is that we stand resilient as professional educators and share our message with strength and honor. Our schools may be criticized and our positions may be ridiculed, but we will not let that discourage us. Unlike the assumption by some that we fight for our schools because of a desire for self-preservation, we know in our hearts that we do this for each child we serve. After all, this is our community, these are our community public schools, and this is our legacy.
I believe the future of our democracy is dependent upon a quality public education system. Together we have the power to fight the negativity with the truth that public schools are the foundation and the answer for our future.
All the best,
Jim