Georgia Attorney Tries to Educate the President about the Promise of Public Education

Two weeks ago Valerie Strauss printed  this very profound letter written to President Barack Obama to protest the education policies of the Obama Administration.  The letter was written by Bertis Downs, a public school parent and an attorney in Athens, Georgia.

The letter is an almost perfectly written plea from a constituent to an elected official.  Downs thanks the President for honoring a guidance counselor from Athens’ Clarke Central High School.  Then Downs enumerates in personal and very moving examples the ways Clarke Central High School represents what a quality public high school ought to be.  Clarke Central is diverse and inclusive,  and it even celebrates its own diversity.  The school provides myriad opportunities to learn; it has won awards for closing the achievement gap; it sends many promising students to college.  “Clarke Central strives to educate any and every student within its community.  By and large, it succeeds.”

But, writes Downs, this school (like the majority of public schools across America) “faces significant challenges in an era of dwindling state budgets.”  Downs then celebrates the teachers and other staff who are, he says, the school’s “main strength.”

And now Downs’ plea to the President:  “The policies currently promoted by your Department of Education are actually hurting — not helping — schools like ours.  He explains how standardized testing and test prep has interfered with his daughter’s exploration of Plato.  Then he points out that test prep is far more threatening to the students who are less prepared than his daughter is.  “Is this where your education policy is taking us—toward a de facto two-track system with schools for well-to-do students and other schools for those from poverty?”

He gives the President the benefit of the doubt:  “Your speeches do not suggest any of this, especially when you talk about ‘opportunity for all,’ ‘great teachers’ and ‘setting high standards.’”  But, he writes, there is a disparity between the President’s rhetoric and the policies his administration aggressively pursues: “But current politics, accompanied by the sweet-sounding elixir of ‘choice,’ are reducing the ability of skilled and effective teachers to really teach.”  “Quite frankly, Mr. President, current education policies are failing our students and teachers, setting our schools back, and compromising our country’s commitment to equal opportunities for all.”

I am certain that Bertis Downs realizes that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have no plans to change course in the next few years.  What I admire about Downs’ letter is the argument he makes for the benefit of others who will read his letter.

It is essential for those of us preoccupied with countering what has become known as “corporate school reform” or “school deform” to realize that we cannot win what has become an ideological battle merely by shouting at what we are against.  Downs emphasizes what he is for: the kind of quality comprehensive high school most of us know well.  Imperfect it may be, but at the same time it serves all the children who enter its doors; it strives (we hope) to welcome students from all kinds of backgrounds in an inclusive culture; and its teachers expect much of themselves and their students.

This is the promise of public education—not a utopian system admittedly, but something we are called to work together as a public to support and improve.

Bertis Downs got Valerie Strauss to publish his letter.  We all need to submit well-crafted letters like Downs’ to our newspapers and everywhere else we can get them out there for people to consider.

By: Jan Resseger

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