Education Makes for a Better Democracy

The Beltway in Washington D. C. is a place of intrigue. Dysfunction, infighting, ancient irrelevant practices, and crises of leadership are common. Yet, sometimes there are individuals who stand out as diamonds in the rough.

One of these individuals is former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. In an outstanding article by Julia Prodis Sulek about the recently retired Panetta, Ms. Sulek wrote: “He (Panetta) plans to focus on the Panetta Institute, teaching the next generation that public service is a high calling, that civility and integrity matter in a democracy.”

Panetta is right to assert that public service is a high calling. For this democracy to flourish, our political system needs to be understood and respected by the next generation. Education must be the driving force to accomplish equity for all.

Speaking of equity, another local leader and Beltway diamond in the rough is Congressman Mike Honda. The former teacher, principal, school board member, supervisor, assemblyman and now congressman authored a public law in 2011 to create the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission.

Over the last two years, the commission has met and convened several regional town hall meetings to receive public input about the problems of inequality in our current K-12 education system. As I wrote on May 3, 2011, that the city of San Jose Rotunda was the venue for one of the first regional meetings of the Commission.

Testifying on that commission forum was David B. Cohen, a teacher at Palo Alto High School who said, “Our district’s general expenditures per pupil this year stand at $11,431 per student—87 percent more than San Francisco Unified, 103 percent more than Oakland Unified. This is despite the fact that their students, on average, need and deserve more support than students in Palo Alto.”

The commission’s charge was to provide advice to the U.S. Department of Education’s Secretary (Arne Duncan) on the inequities in system funding/finance that foster the perpetuation of the achievement gap and lower high school graduation rates for poor children and English Language Learners. The 27-member commission was nonpartisan, including three Stanford elite: Law professor Florentino Cuellar; Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond (on Obama’s 2009 list to be Secretary of Education); and Hoover Institute Senior Fellow Eric Hanushek.

The report was bold in its content. “No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly staked the deck against so many of its children,” wrote the commission members. Is this not a tragic result for our children when this country spends nearly $1.4 trillion every two years on its national defense? Certainly an educated citizenry in a democracy is vital to national security, is it not?

Gov. Jerry Brown is now proposing a new system of school funding, looking at the equity of money and services for students of higher need. (i.e. foster youth, ELL, and Free and Reduced Lunch qualified) This new strategy is a critical systemic change for education funding and potential outcomes for children. However, it must be the federal system that ensures equity within a publicly-financed system of schools, not each individual state.

Linda Darling-Hammond is quoted in the report as saying, “In a knowledge-based economy, we can no longer afford to educate only a small share of students well, while under-educating many others. Those who do not succeed in school are increasingly likely to be unemployed, on welfare, or incarcerated, rather than able to engage productively in the economy.” How tragic for the wealthiest country with the best military on this planet!

To do better, the report says, we must have high quality pre-kindergarten programs for every poor child within the next 10 years. The county and Office of Education are working diligently to see that this construct could be the norm in the next three years.

Secretary Panetta and Congressman Honda are two of our Northern California leaders trying thoughtfully and diligently to create a stronger America. Their calling to public office was good for us all. Civility and integrity must always be on top of the list to move this country forward. Our children deserve it.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

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