As delusions drive US politics, boosting education is democracy’s best hope

·3 min read
Travis Long/tlong@newsobserver.com

The key takeaway from Tuesday’s primary races was that politics is now not just a contest between Republicans and Democrats arguing over tax cuts and social programs.

It’s a struggle between critical thinking and delusion.

The outcome will determine, as President Lincoln said, whether “a government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

This is not hyperbole. A New York Times analysis saw this message in the vote:

“Republican voters in this week’s primary races demonstrated a willingness to nominate candidates who parrot Donald J. Trump’s election lies and who appear intent on exerting extraordinary political control over voting systems. The results make clear that the November midterms may well affect the fate of free and fair elections in the country.”

Given that context, it was a fitting coincidence that my first meeting after the primary was with three education leaders who support the development of informed future voters. They are advocates for high quality public schools at the national, state and local levels: Rebecca Pringle is president of the National Education Association, Tamika Walker Kelly heads the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and Kristin Beller leads the NCAE chapter in Wake County, home of the state’s largest public school system.

The three veteran teachers are concerned about familiar issues: low teacher pay, rising class sizes, aging school buildings, a lack of support staff, textbooks and technology, and students’ learning loss and mental stress caused by the pandemic.

But they are also worried about something new, something perhaps caused by the long neglect of public schools – the rise of willful ignorance that has made educators ”the enemy.” Former President Trump, who once declared, “I love the poorly educated,” has fueled a movement that embraces conspiracies over truth and seeks to ban books and erase uncomfortable chapters in American history from the public school curriculum.

Pringle said teacher unions have long faced criticism from conservatives, but “what’s new is actually attacking teachers and support staff, threatening them, literally threatening, physically, verbally, questioning their professional judgment in terms of teaching the complete history of the state and the United States,” she said.

The attacks on public schools are often cloaked as efforts to improve them by demanding more teacher accountability, labeling schools with grades A through F and tying teacher pay to student test scores. What’s not done is what’s needed: better teacher pay and more support staff and resources.

Beller said that’s what has happened in North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature. Republican state lawmakers “have modeled for folks how to talk about loving public schools while harming them,” she said.

Walker Kelly noted that the targeting of teachers and public schools contradicts what most parents think.

“It’s a disconnect from what we know when we talk with our parents and our community members. They love their public schools and they deeply love and respect their child’s favorite teacher and they support the things educators want.”

Pringle is encouraging teachers to speak up about the importance of public schools to a functioning democracy. “An uneducated population will not challenge, will not be able to think critically, will not be able to problem-solve collaboratively,” she said.

Improving and expanding education is not about elitism. It is about fostering the nation’s ideal and democracy’s necessity – equality.

Pringle said, “We know that an educated citizenry in this country is what will not only maintain our democracy but actually move us closer to the poetry in our Constitution — we the people, all of us.”

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com

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