Commentary: The schools bring us together

In succinctly capturing the essence of education, I don’t think anyone has ever done a better job than G.K. Chesterton. He wrote, “Education is simply the soul of a society being transferred from one generation to the next.” His point is that civilization continues because each generation takes responsibility for passing along to the next generation all that humanity has learned up to that point.

The current political season is very focused on the things that divide us, and even local politics is rife with earnestly held policy differences. But as the summer winds down and our teachers, administrators and children prepare for another school year, perhaps we can unite in our shared commitment to our children’s future.

To be sure, education occurs in lots of places. It begins in the home, and in an extended network of family and friends. It happens in churches, in sports and camps, in books and on the internet, and innumerable other places, including private schools and home-school environments. All that said, the vast majority of formal education for the vast majority of children who will be Shenandoah County’s future occurs in our public schools.

Our schools are our county’s largest collective endeavor, and while half of their funding comes from the state, they are still the largest item in our local budget. They are a source of civic pride – certainly our sports teams and athletes, but also the students’ achievements in the arts, in agricultural pursuits like 4-H, FFA and FCCLA, and of course, in academics. We take pride in the schools and the kids as extensions of ourselves and our communities because they are the product of our shared investment in the future.

Education is more important to a child’s future than it has ever been. Because of globalization and automation, our children face a future in which low-skilled middle class jobs may soon be a memory. Even occupations that used to require little formal schooling now require specialized skills – many of them best obtained in a vocational-technical environment. According to the U.S. Department of Agricluture, modern farming requires understanding of science, technology and business management; auto mechanics today deals as much with computers as moving parts. Education is more valuable than ever, and it is becoming more expensive, because that is what happens to things that become more valuable.

Beyond its value to the children, however, education is also valuable to the local economy. As our county considers options for economic development, we need to remember that the sorts of residents and businesses we hope to attract don’t often locate in areas that don’t prioritize education. In addition to preparing our kids for their future, our investment in education increases the chances that their future will include a good-paying job in Shenandoah County.

To be clear, like any other institution run by humans (particularly large institutions) our schools are fallible. Our supervisors, School Board members, superintendent, principals, teachers and others are all, from time to time, certain to do things with which we disagree, sometimes vehemently. However, just as parents can disagree with each other about parenting decisions and still love their children, members of our community should be able to disagree about particular policies and still support our schools.

We are starting a new school year with a new administration. Many of the divisive issues of the last year are behind us, and we are offered the opportunity to turn a page, and to move forward in a constructive fashion, particularly in areas of common ground. In doing so, we don’t have to ignore very real differences on policy matters, but we can avoid negative assumptions about the motives of people who disagree with us (something I could do better myself, I admit), and compromise where we can.

Whatever we believe about national politics or local public policy, I hope the start of the 2016-2017 school year can give us all an occasion to rally around the schools. They really are the beating heart of this community, and the place where our present helps shape our future. To everyone involved in local education – the students, teachers, coaches, administrators, support staff, parents, as well as the supportive community that provide the schools in the first place – best wishes for a successful year.

Dan Walsh is president of Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools.

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