Public education is every citizen’s responsibility

I liken the failure of our public school system to The Great Philadelphia Smoke Detector Giveaway. The Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) went door-to-door, giving residents of certain neighborhoods a free smoke detector. The firemen even installed them, on the theory that 400 free smoke detectors proved more cost-effective than fighting a single fire.

Fire-related deaths plummeted and government largesse seemed justified until two years later, when the rate began to curve back to previous levels. Eighteen to 20 months happened to coincide with battery life. Recipients refused to replace batteries, believing that since the PFD installed the device, someone other than themselves had responsibility for its maintenance.

This faulty notion also surfaces in the public school system. Government says citizens must send their children to school; government builds and staffs schools, ergo citizens no longer owe any obligation to teach their children.

A professional librarian once complained to me her granddaughter brought home a note from the Norristown School District demanding to know why the bearer could neither read, write nor count.

“That’s the school’s job,” said this Master of Library Science.

Any child starting school with children who can read and count to 10 is simply never going to catch up. Precious class time has to be siphoned her way and offspring of more ambitious parents will grow bored — all because mother and grandmother dropped the ball and refused to accept responsibility for educating a life they are directly accountable for bringing into this world.

While I absolutely understand Matthew Miller’s premise for vouchers (“For What It’s Worth,” Current, Oct. 14), by allowing children of parents who give a damn to depart a system chock-full of children whose parents don’t, vouchers not only don’t fix the schools, they leave them catchalls for hard-core screw-ups.

Isolate the rotten apples all you will, but you still have to deal with them.

The reason we should all care about public schools in free fall is the ease with which children left to wither can hijack your Lexus, put a gun to your head and make your day mighty unpleasant.

The schools would also be stabilized because wealthy parents will not tolerate otherwise. Budding disruptive bullies would find themselves facing every alternative rich people can afford: extra guards to step in during turmoil, extra counselors to checkmate turmoil, a wonderland of after-school programs, better meals and highly paid, motivated teachers.

An extra $60,000 — what it costs to keep a half-dozen students at Episcopal Academy — even insures that classroom has the tutorial staff to bootstrap our librarian’s granddaughter into the literacy she missed.

The president of this university went to public school. Central and Girls’ High remain jewels in the crown of public education. And they are free to those with drive.

Jerry Briggs is a clerk at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library loading dock.


Originally published on November 11, 1999