In 1964 my mother graduated from Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., a figurative stone’s throw from Oxford, Miss., the home of Ole Miss and the site of James Meredith’s fight to enroll at his state’s flagship university. It never occurred to her that, in 2012, we would be questioning the value of — what many in her generation were willing to die for — a college education.
First, to the school board of Prince George’s County: I read the comments attributed to many of you and your apologists in the story “Few college graduates on Prince George’s school board” with a mix of anger, shame and fear. That leaders of our school district would openly question the value of a college education in any context is mind-boggling. Indeed, one school board member was quoted as describing a college degree as just “a piece of paper.”
When our school board holds such attitudes it is hard to have much hope that our school system is capable of producing schools that can be competitive with our Washington metropolitan area neighbors, such as Fairfax and Montgomery, much less the growing economic and intellectual competitors developing in China and India. This kind of muddled thinking, when taken to its extreme conclusion, would have one believe that a patient should be unconcerned as to whether a surgeon has a medical degree because it’s just “a piece of paper.” If this is indeed your attitude toward higher education, you’ve failed us and you’ve failed our children.
Second, to the parents of Prince George’s County, we’ve failed our children because of our complacency. Our school board is charged with overseeing a budget of more than $1.664 billion dollars in FY 2013. They are responsible for managing more than 17,000 employees. And they are responsible for the educational lives of more than 124,000 of our children. According to the latest census numbers, of the 50 largest school districts in the nation, Prince George’s County spends more per student than all but four school districts. Yet, no one would argue that Prince George’s County schools are comparable to our neighbors in the Washington metropolitan area.
In fact many parents, including my wife and I, decide to opt out and send our children to private school. We end up paying what I like to term a mediocrity tax that comes in the form of private school tuition because we don’t believe that Prince George’s County schools are up to the task. Many of us then turn to our own families and concerns without thinking about the larger impact that underperforming schools will have on all of our children’s future. When we turn away, we, in fact, levy the mediocrity tax on all of our children, in the form of diminished future opportunity, whether or not they are enrolled in public or private school.
As parents and taxpayers, we have not demanded accountability. We have not demanded that our leaders be qualified. We have not demanded that our leaders be effective. We have not demanded that they be good stewards over the vast sums of wealth that we have entrusted to them and that they produce a much better return on investment. That is our failure. And, as a personal matter, I am ashamed that I have not been more involved.
And finally, to the children of Prince George’s County, let me assure you that no matter what the “leaders” of Prince George’s County school board have to say, a college degree is not just “a piece of paper.” It is the process of learning new and difficult concepts not only from your professors, but also from your peers. During this process your bedrock assumptions will be challenged. You’ll be required to think critically about what you believe and why you believe it.You’ll learn about the physical, philosophical and spiritual foundations of human existence. Your skills will be developed so that your good intentions can be used efficiently in both the public and private spheres. And you’ll grow. You’ll understand implicitly that a college education’s value cannot be overstated. You’ll understand that it is your admission ticket to an opportunity for a more fulfilling life.
And when you read in The Washington Post that your school board members are ambivalent about the value of a college degree you too will be angry, ashamed and fearful.
In closing, to Caleb, Gracie and Nehemiah (little Nehe), I’ll do my best to help with your homework and be a more involved parent. Love, Daddy.
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