Main Street: Losing democracy

Rich Wandschneider

According to the dictionary, democracy is government in which power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly, or through a system of representation involving free elections. There are also notions of broad inherent and somehow "equal" human rights in most definitions of democracy. It's an old idea, and it has been practiced - or attempted - in all kinds of places and in combination with different social and economic systems. Various types of elections and representational systems are also part of democracy's history and current status in the world.

Most Americans, I believe, would contend that democracy requires the notion of tolerance. That it is important that minority points of view be tolerated, and, given the opportunity to have a broad hearing. (This notion is being tested in countries with radical religious majorities which are not particularly tolerant.) I think that most Americans would also agree that democracy rests on an educated public. Education allows us to make more informed decisions about candidates and issues. And education makes new knowledge available for economic and social life, and gives opportunity for ideas to grow and adapt to the conditions of the day.

This is in preface to my own strongly held view that education is absolutely crucial to a working democracy. Access to good education is critical to the workings of our economy and our government, and it is also critical to our notions of fairness. A government "of the people" is so only in name if participation in the government is limited to those of a certain class, religious persuasion, color, or gender.

It could be that the growth of public education in the United States has been the most important element in extending economic and social benefits across the population. We sometimes forget that the move towards a broad based public education system has been slow and often painful. Let me remind you of a few major steps in its growth: public elementary and then higher schools; state teachers' colleges; the land grant college system; the G.I. Bill, which extended higher education across economic and geographical lines at incredible speed post World War II; various civil rights acts, which extended and improved education to large blocs of citizens; the National Defense Education Act, which gave federal loans to students of higher education on the basis of need and ability; and Title IX, which ensured women equal access to physical education.

We are now watching the broad system of public education that we have grown over hundreds of years crumble. I now that is harsh wording, but I believe that things are that critical.

Example: Portland, which once enjoyed one of the highest rates of students' participation in public higher education, is experiencing a run towards private schools. Result: inequities.

Example: Many costs of education that have come to be accepted as part of the education package are now being passed on directly to students and families. Pay to play for sports, music, and even bus transportation are becoming "normal" across the land. Result: inequities.

Example: Public schools in rich districts are building school foundations that allow them to continue programs and distance them from schools in poorer districts. For example, the Lake Oswego foundation can auction parking spaces in its lot for thousands of dollars. As Jonathan Nicolas told me, paying a few thousand dollars for a parking space that allows the library and sports teams to continue in superior fashion is cheaper than paying $17,000 each year to send a child to Catlin Gabel or the Oregon Episcopal School. Result: inequities.

Example: Costs of higher education in the state of Oregon continue to rise, as they do across the land. The notion that higher education should be free and available on the basis of merit, which is the system in many western democracies (and once was in California), is no longer even an agenda item in our democracy. Result: inequities.

Example: The Enterprise School system, which has long had one of the premier art programs in the state, will soon have none. One of the premier elementary music programs in the state is likewise gone, momentarily duct-taped together through Gail Swart's generosity. Result: our kids lose.

The worst effect of the disinvestment in public education might be the ill will that accompanies it. Teachers lose jobs, or live in fear of doing so. They are suspicious of each other. Administrators lose control of their own systems, or live in fear of it. Taxpayers snipe at those paying a little less, or those seeming to get a little more. Parents scrimp for private education or special tutoring, and have to balance their own beliefs in private education with their children's welfare.

All of these things are now happening in Wallowa County. We should know that we are not alone - an educator from Virginia here for a Fishtrap workshop tells me it is everywhere. We should also be careful that we not destroy the broader social fabric that makes us a community. We need to be hypersensitive towards colleagues and neighbors that feel directly threatened at this time. As emotions cool, we will need to work together to ensure the broadest and highest quality public education programs that we can produce for the children - and the adults - of this community.

Ultimately, how well we do this, and how well the public education system does this, will determine the future of our democracy.

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