Schools are opening again, one at a time, here and there. The date seems less noticeable this year, or less noticed.
The doors don't swing open as hopefully as they did in the days when towns and cities greeted First Day Back at School like a holiday.
For parents, anticipation has been transformed into anxiety. Their kids return home bearing bulletins of cuts, costs, crimps. A teacher missing here, a class enlarged there. Lunch up to 75 cents, music down to once a week. One town in Massachusetts no longer has a school social worker. In another, the art teacher is stretched thin between buildings.
In Bethel Park, Pa., a system faced with cuts has taken to charging fees for every "frill": $35 for a chance to play on the football team, $10 for metal shop, $1 for drama club.
These are only the early results, the ones dribbling in from state and local tax rebellions, from past federal cutbacks. The worst, already approved by Congress, are yet to come. The students are skating across the surface of public education with the ice cracking behind them. And not enough people really care.
Public education is ultimately dependent on one missing ingredient: public support. The support that comes from the community conviction that we all have something invested in the education of younger people. The support that comes from the belief that education makes a difference, a positive difference in those lives.
I am told that the old pro-school coalition has been the victim of disillusionment. It is popular to blame schools that graduate illiterates, teachers who cannot teach, administrators who cannot keep discipline. We say that they do not deserve our dollars or allegiance.
But criticism of the public schools isn't new; it's the solution, or the dissolution, that's new.
As Prof. Stephen Bailey of the Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote for Daedalus, "Discontent with the schools in the early 1950s was a clarion call for education improvement. . . . " But discontent in the 1980s is often the rationalization for cutting back help and turning away attention.
In the government, for example, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell blasts the state of teaching at the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States--"dreadful sameness and mediocrity"--while his administration turns away from public education, favoring tuition tax credits for private schools and budget cuts for public schools.
The real loss of the old pro-school sentiment in the country comes not from the disillusionment of the community but from the disintegration of the community.
There are changes all through the age spectrum that pull away the supports. Simply put, fewer of us are directly involved with kids and schools.
When I was in grade school, every neighborhood door emptied out young in the morning. That isn't true today. There are fewer children in school and therefore fewer parents and fewer grandparents worried about the schools. The parent with one or two children has less tenure, less power.
Today, an older, whiter population seems less concerned about the younger, darker school-aged population. And simultaneously, many of those who once made a commitment to public schools now take their children and run . . . for the safety of private school.
"At the end of this road," wrote Bailey, "may well be ghettoized schools for the urban poor, non-English-language schools for Hispanics, racially pure schools for the bigoted, religious schools for the devout, and for the well-off a wholesale reversion to the private academies of the 19th century."
At best, the public schools have traditionally provided a common ground in a society composed of such varied peoples, backgrounds, philosophies. America searched then for common values and found them in a belief in education, in children, in the future. The schools haven't always worked, but they were the place where most of our ancestors mixed and melted and learned.
Now, these first days of September I wonder whether the public schools are the victims of a society that seems to be willfully splitting once again into fragments.