Last Thursday afternoon, I watched my son and his fellow students in the class of 2021 walk across the stage at Bud Walton Arena. The investment he and his teachers put into 12-plus years of formal education was officially recognized with pomp and even a dash of circumstance.
Families and friends of young men and women across Northwest Arkansas gathered in arenas, stadiums and other facilities to mark educational achievements and passage of those once-little children into adulthood.
I'm thankful for local school leaders who, in the midst of covid-19's lingering presence, did what they've been doing for more than a year -- whatever is necessary to prevent covid-19 from stealing away students' opportunities to learn and to celebrate what they've accomplished so far.
I'm not naive enough to suggest covid-19 hasn't had an impact on learning. It's been a huge disruption. I accept that the tendency is often to compare reality to some concept of perfection, but how many of us ever rationally expect perfection in anything? In whatever challenge we face, we have to give some credit to those who stay in the struggle and fight not for perfection, but for the best possible outcome given circumstances beyond our control.
My son's experience in Fayetteville Public Schools had its ups and downs. Name me something any of us do for a dozen years involving thousands of other kids, hundreds of teachers and millions of variables that won't have its ups and downs. But at the end of the day (or, more accurately, his senior year), I'm less concerned about the inevitable challenges that arose than about whether the school system helped us as parents produce an 18-year-old capable of critical thinking, lifelong learning and a capacity to interact with the many kinds of people who will be part of his life.
I believe in the value of public education. Political leaders owe it to Arkansans to operate public schools at the highest achievable levels. That's a moral obligation, in my view. Offering quality education to every child who comes through the schoolhouse doors should be embraced as a one of the most fundamental responsibilities of public service and government authority. Proposals or legislation to siphon away financial resources from public schools in favor of some other system of education ought to be viewed with skepticism.
A state, and each community, has to view its education system not just based on how well it educates the top 20%, but on how it educates every young person who shows up in the classroom. A robust public education system seeks the best possible outcome for every student.
That doesn't mean every student is guaranteed to achieve at the same level. I might wish I had the same capabilities as Elon Musk or Warren Buffett in business or the same ability to entertain as Frank Sinatra or Billie Eilish. Wishing doesn't make it fact. But every student ought to have the same opportunities to prepare themselves to discover the best way to achieve what they're capable of, to essentially fall in love with their future, as Eilish might suggest.
Public education let's everyone through the schoolhouse door. At its best, it creates an environment in which people from many backgrounds and beliefs, people with hosts of idiosyncrasies, personalities and experiences, can pursue knowledge and learn how to learn for their entire lives.
Public schools, within the context of the communities in which they operate, reflect the world in which we all live and in which all students need to be prepared to contribute.
Of all the things I pay taxes to support, public schools are one of the most important.
Public schools ... and bridges.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.