Whether public education becomes a significant factor in next year's presidential election cannot be determined now. How the candidates will view that issue, and how they will address it, are unknowns. But no question exists about what many citizens would like to see. They want to hear serious, candid discussions about it. And they want more than talk. They want to know where we're going and how we're going to get there.
That, at least, is an overriding impression resulting from conversations with citizens of this midwestern community, examined at length elsewhere in these pages today.
The recession has spawned more than fears about loss of jobs and permanent changes in the type of work Americans perform. It has brought to the surface deeper concerns about the future, for individuals and the country. Education stands out among them.
If the people of Rockford are an example of the nation at large, then the prospective presidential candidates had better pay attention to this issue. For it affects virtually everything else: proper allocation of national resources between defense and domestic spending, the ability of Americans to compete in what is recognized as a far tougher period ahead, restoration of a sense of national pride and achievement and the impression created by the Reagan administration's handling of public education.
What's more, there appears to be growing awareness of how all of these facets of public life are linked to the question of education. As Bill Bowen, a Rockford high school principal, said, "All I can tell you is that there's a lot of discussion by people I know that concerns the national priorities."
He was not talking only about educators. He meant persons speaking about that subject in all walks of life in his city. Among them, there is new talk about how to achieve excellence in American life. Inevitably, that comes down to the schools their children are attending.
There is, of course, a paradox and a crucial national dilemma here. Just as the nation appears to be focusing seriously on the quality of public education, public schools are facing perhaps their most difficult period. They have borne a heavy burden and paid a similarly high price during the budget slashing of the last two years. In this, too, Rockford offers an example.
Next fall, for instance, its schools will reopen under notably reduced circumstances. Officials have had to lay off 347 teachers and close wings of two elementary schools. These cutbacks were made necessary because of a local budget deficit of $3.1 million caused by reduced funding from corporate property taxes and a $2 million cut in state school aid.
Rockford, like many other industrial communities hit hard by the recession, finds it difficult to make up the differences from new local revenues. There isn't enough money to meet basic needs caused by unemployment, to say nothing of the schools. And in this time of severe economic hardships and uncertainty, the citizens are in no mood to add to their tax burdens.
Naturally, this has a bad effect on the teachers, as well as concerned parents.
"It's very difficult on some of the young teachers," Bowen said. "It's hard. They work hard and do a good job, and it's a downer. Some of these very young ones wonder whether they can stay in teaching, whether they can put up with this. It has an effect. But when they get in the classroom with the kids, I don't think it affects their teaching."
A parent, typical of many interviewed, expressed the other side of the concern. Gayle Gardner, 31, who has three small children and is returning to school part time at the community college for business administration courses, spoke of new worries about the impact of cuts on the public school in her suburban community.
"They have been running in the black for several years," she said, "but they are going to start cutting down. I'm disappointed. I think our education is so important, and that's always the first place that gets cut. Our kids are our future. If we cut down in areas that they really need, the future of our country is going to change."
That is not at all to suggest that the solution to better public education lies only with money, especially dollars from Washington. But here, as elsewhere, that conflict over funds and schools stands out.
One of Rockford's leading citizens took a cynical view of current talk about taking new steps to achieve excellence in education. "Hey, they're all for it," he said, of his fellow townspeople. "They want great schools. They think their neighborhood school is the best, but they better not raise their taxes for it, or close their schools, or do anything else."
This reporter's impression, based on what has been said here in homes and offices, is less negative. Cut through all the talk, and you get a sense that people really are ready to listen to serious ideas about improving public education. That goes for the local and national levels, and it carries a political message applicable to the 1984 campaign.
Principal Bowen voted for Ronald Reagan last time. One of the reasons he is uncertain about whether he would do so again involves education.
"I'm concerned about some of the directions of the administration, I suppose," he said. "I have a feeling personally that the administration is not a backer of all public schools. I get nervous about tax credits, budget cuts. The general feeling doesn't seem to be one of support. That's the message I get.
"Now maybe they're saying, 'You guys do better, and we'll give you more.' We need to do better, I agree, although I don't see all the doom and despair educationally that I read about in the national press . . . .
"Will public education continue to be the leveler in this country? See, I really think it has been. I'm one of those guys who thinks it's made a difference in our country.
"You don't know much about me, but public education has been it for me. I come from a small town in Wisconsin, from eight kids in the family, and our family used the public schools to better themselves. That is the avenue. I guess if I could tell the president something it would be: There are strong feelings about what's happening. And there's worry."
In that, he spoke for many more than himself.