Shaping Perception of Public Schools

By Lawrence Hardy

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Kim Jong-un. America’s public schools.  

What do these three have in common? The first two, leaders of Iran and North Korea, respectively, are threats to U.S. security. And the third? According to a report last year by the august Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” they’re a threat -- or, more precisely, their poor performance is a threat -- as well.

The comparison is outrageous and offensive. And, to be sure, the report’s authors didn’t make it. But then, they didn’t have to. The reader’s mind does an excellent job of that on its own.

“There is a tremendous amount of oppositional language that kind of creates a sense of opposing parties, and almost the threat of an enemy,” says Julie Sedivy, a linguist at the University of Calgary, Alberta, and co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You. “That’s very emotional language, and it serves a purpose of setting up a potential enemy that everyone needs to rally against.”

Guess who that enemy is?

Not so long ago, people who devoted much if not all of their professional lives to public education --  administrators, teachers and counselors, school board members --  could simply concentrate on the critical work before them, They knew the public, while not agreeing with everything they did, would be behind them. That time is now gone.

To win the fight --  and it is a fight --  for public education, school leaders must be more aggressive in standing up and confronting those who would privatize public schools, in some instances, with the expectation of considerable financial gain. That means changing, or not entering, the “no-win” conversations and not accepting the other side’s characterizations of “failing schools,” “incompetent teachers,” or what Louisiana State Superintendent John White, in describing opponents of yet another plan for state voucher expansion, labeled “entrenched interests.”

For those with a real interest in saving public schools and keeping privatization proponents at bay, now is not the time to be shy, says NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. To respond to these challenges, Gentzel last fall announced the creation of the New NSBA, a comprehensive rethinking of the organization that aims to strengthen ties with state school board associations and lobby more aggressively on behalf of public schools.

“The institution of public education is being slowly whittled away,” Gentzel says. “A little chip here, a little chip there -- it may not seem like much, but over time it has an impact. We have to stand up before it’s too late.”

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