Under incredibly challenging circumstances, schools across Minnesota will be opening — in some form or other — over the next several days. As students begin this new year, it’s important to remember the history of public schools, how they’ve adapted to meet changing times and the critical role they play in building strong communities. Now, more than ever, public schools need all of us to stand with them, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum.
Public schools have been in our country longer than we’ve been the United States of America. The first free public school opened in Boston in 1635. Some colonies created laws requiring schools for towns of a certain size, but early efforts were sporadic and disjointed.
Framers of the Constitution believed in public education for all children. Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had vastly different political views, but they shared a belief that publicly funded public schools were a cornerstone of our democracy. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams.
Horace Mann is credited with developing a more coherent system of public schooling in the 1800s. While many did not agree with him, his six principles for public schools prevailed: 1) The public should not remain ignorant; 2) public education should be paid for, controlled and sustained by an interested public; 3) such education will be best provided in schools that are inclusive of children from all backgrounds; 4) this education must be nonsectarian; 5) this education must be taught by the spirit, methods and discipline of a free society; and 6) this education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
Since that time, the notion of a “common good” has been central to the foundation of public schools, while expectations of public schools have grown. Public schools are expected not only to teach academics, but to prepare young people for a productive future, provide community and social services, and more. Importantly in today’s environment, public schools are the main places that bring together children from diverse economic, social, racial and religious backgrounds for hours each day.
Societal needs, events and issues often come knocking on the doors of public schools before others have to navigate them — and public schools always rise to the occasion. Some examples of what’s been asked of public schools over time:
• Educate students who don’t speak English.
• Provide child care for working parents.
• Address issues of poverty through meals and more.
• Ensure student safety and practice lockdown drills.
• Offer social, emotional and mental health support.
• Integrate schools and address racial equity.
• Help students when crisis or dissension hits our country or our world.
• Provide a wide range of special education services.
Last March, the coronavirus pandemic turned the traditional method of schooling on its head. School leaders are now making agonizing decisions about opening their buildings while balancing very real health concerns. All public schools have created models for in-person, online and hybrid (half of each) learning, and are ready to — and will — pivot based on their local COVID-19 data and their unique circumstances.
Getting ready for the first day of school in 2020 has not been easy, and there have been — and will continue to be — hiccups along the way. But one thing remains clear: Every single public school is focused on providing the safest and best learning experience possible, within the realities and rules of a global pandemic.
This is not the first time a curve ball has been thrown at our public schools. Our schools have weathered world wars, past epidemics and natural disasters. They are creative, responsive and — most important — open to every single student who comes knocking.
We need our public schools, and they need us. Strong public schools truly do make strong communities. It will take all of us, whether through words or deeds, to support our public schools in these trying times. Public schools are the great equalizer, the hub of our communities, there for us in good times and in bad. Working together, we can keep our public schools strong — so when this crisis ends, they will still be there, ready for whatever comes next.
Deb Henton is executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA). Kirk Schneidawind is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA).