The above-the-fold headline screamed from the front page of Raleigh’s News and Observer: “Wake County School System Seeing Fewer New Students
Than Expected.”

In Wake County’s case, this means about 1,000 fewer new students than the system had anticipated for the last two school years. It is not that new school-aged people are not arriving in the Raleigh area. It is that their parents have far more educational choices for their children than they once did, and many of them are opting for charters and independent schools, both secular and faith-based. Home schooling is growing as well, and combined, these options added more students than did the giant Wake County Public School System, now North Carolina’s largest with more than 157,000 students. Just more than 80 percent of school-aged children now attend traditional Wake County public schools. That is by far the majority, but still less than it once was.

While Wake County’s changes are the most dramatic because of its size and the number and diversity of it non-system options, it is not alone. Other school systems, including Cumberland County’s, are experiencing lower growth projections, in part because parents are opting for non-system educations for their children. Parental options have grown since the North Carolina General Assembly raised the cap on charter schools, a less regulated, but still publicly funded education. The legislature also established a publicly funded voucher program for certain students to attend non-public programs.

You might be thinking, so what? 

So what if parents take their children out of traditional public schools and put them in charter or independent schools? And, so what if parents decide to home school, often at significant sacrifice to themselves? All conscientious parents want quality educations for their children. The differences come in how best to deliver that education, and decisions about what to do with which students are complicated and highly personal. We are talking, after all, about what is dearest to our hearts, the futures our children.

Full disclosure here. The Dickson Precious Jewels attended both traditional public and independent schools throughout their K-12 years and into college and graduate schools. Homeschooling was never on the table.

Americans decided during the 19th century that public education is a worthy endeavor, that it makes for a stronger and more productive society. Public education became more inclusive over time, expanding to take in both boys and girls from all backgrounds, religions and cultures. It also became more comprehensive, expanding from reading, writing and arithmetic up to 8th grade or so to the comprehensive high school curricula we have today.

Somewhere along the line, some Americans, including many North Carolinians, decided our public schools are failing at least some children and that there should be other options. It is hard to argue with that notion, both because it is so deeply personal and because all institutions fail in some ways. It is also complex because what constitutes failure in one person’s view is success for another.

What keeps your columnist awake at night is in part the state of our public schools but is it also the state and cohesiveness of us, we Americans.

Ours is and always has been, a diverse culture. Except for those of us descended from Native Americans, we all came here from somewhere else, bringing with us different experiences, languages, religions and cultures. Over time, these differences fade, of course, but the one, uniquely American experience most of us have shared is public education. As other common experiences like compulsory military service have fallen away this one has become more important.

The American school experience, be it in a rural or urban setting, has been a glue that binds us all together. We all recognize the stellar elementary school teacher who inspires young children to want to learn, the kindly high school coach who teaches not only sports but instills character, the music teacher who dresses us in construction paper costumes and puts on a holiday choral performance. We all know the class genius, the class clown and the class bully. Students have had, and are having, these experiences in North Carolina and California and everywhere in between. They are almost universal and provide a common bond we share and understand.

I can think of no other experience in American culture that provides such a connection in the midst of our great and growing diversity.

Nothing in life is static, and certainly not education as human knowledge expands every moment. My concern for students and communities in North Carolina as educational options expand is that we remember and value what public education continues to provide beyond book learning. I want us to both embrace our many educational options and to cherish and nurture the glue of common experience that ties us together.

A diverse nation without some glue is simply unimaginable.


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