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Speak On It: Is a Good Public Education a Right or a Responsibility?



by Kenneth Williams

Keynote address delivered at the “An Apple for the Teacher Luncheon,” hosted by the Gamma Alpha Chapter of Iota Phi Lambda Professional Sorority, November 6, 2010 at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant on Key Biscayne

Good morning and greetings to all in attendance, the presenters, honorees and those who thought enough of me to be your speaker for this occasion.  Today as we honor those who are in the trenches, day in and day out, I think it is just right for us all to take a trip to see how America has gotten to this point. This country founded by explorers, missionaries, prisoners, slaves, the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated has a story to tell.  That Story leads us to the theme of the occasion: Is a Good Public Education a Right or a Responsibility? I say it is both. It is a right because American history has always viewed situations and asked the question how can it be better? Let’s look at the facts of this history and maybe we can see how to best answer the question.

Through the dates in this timeline, one thing permeates and is rather self-evident. That is, public schools, in America were born out of a struggle. Much like the American spirit, which strove to be the best in our global society, public education which started far behind our European, African and Asian counterpart started behind the eight ball. But like the American spirit which was born out of a revolution, it soared to great heights and for a moment in time led the world as a beacon of what education can be and should be. 

Now if we break down the words of the theme:

What is great? Of major significance or importance; remarkable or out of the ordinary in degree or magnitude or effect

Public schools by definition are schools that are for the public use, paid for by public taxes; that all students have the ability to attend.

State schools, also known as government schools or, in the United States and Canada, public schools, are schools mandated for or offered to all children by the government, whether national, regional, or local, provided by an institution of civil government, and paid for, in whole or in part, by State taxes.

What is Basic? Common, reduced to the simplest and most significant form possible without loss of generality

What is a Right? Powers or privileges granted by an agreement or law

What is a Responsibility? A duty, obligation or liability for which someone is held accountable.

The constitution of this country allows for the federal and states governments to have a role in the education of our children. They make the rules, mandates and statutes. They fund the process and say do it. They may give us the framework to play by but the opportunity adjust the framework is freely open to school districts. Through our history education has gone from being a rich, White Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male entitlement, to an institution that all persons may benefit from. This transformation didn’t and hasn’t come easy. Some Americans had to fight for it, some had to die for it, some had to watch their loved ones go off to war for it, and some had to be imprisoned for it. But damn it, we have and we ain’t/aren’t giving it back. I know that’s not proper English, but living in Miami has made me bilingual. I can speak English and profanity very well. I may have taught and worked in Kendall, Miami Beach, and Minneapolis for a while, but I was born and raised on 22nd avenue in Bunche Parke. Being truly educated allows me to speak fluently in both languages.

So the aspect of having a good public as a right is easy for me to understand. Our past, our goals, our dreams and our ability to vote gives us the right to have a good American public education.

The bigger issue is; whose responsibility is it to make sure you have a good public education? The past doesn’t have anything to do with this responsibility. This responsibility belongs to the present and the future. So who is responsible? Is it the government, school board, district and school administrators, teachers, society, parents or maybe even the one who the education is actually for the child?

In this educator’s opinion, the answer is the easiest one of all; it’s all of the above.  If we tackle this individually, arguments can be made about who is more important in making sure that a child gets a good public education. If the leaders in government have no vision (repeat) nor even the expertise in education then how will they know what methods of teaching should be enforced or forced down the throats of educators and children. Which president who was “C” average and born into a wealthy influential family by his own admission would dare say that “NO CHILD SHOULD BE LEFT BEHIND”?

What legislature, filled with former educators would make laws effecting the promotion of children regardless of the fact that; they don’t speak English, they live in shelters, they are abused, they are hungry, they are handicap? What state government would claim to support public education in an election race but not even place their own children in a public school, and then find was to withhold funding from them?

If school boards and district administrator were able to pay teachers a salary that could keep great teachers like my cousin from having to work 2 or 3 night jobs just to be able to make it in this economy. Maybe she and others could work tirelessly after school to make sure that lessons are on time and will drive student achievement. Or better yet, if we could pay teachers better, some of the excellent educators in this state and district, would stay in the classroom and not become administrators or leave education totally in order to pay our bills. (Notice I said our, cause I’m included in that number)

Teachers –I will save you for last, since we are honoring you today.

Parents, since they are the first teacher of any child, what kind of grade should parents get if their child fails. What kind of grade does a parent get, when they cannot be reached, or they don’t come to a conference, or they don’t look at progress reports that come out 4 times a year, failure notices that come out 4 times a year or report cards that come 4 times a year. When I worked at Miami Central years ago, sometimes you could never reach a parent to talk about a concern with learning or behavior (there were not that many behavior problems, don’t let the media fool you), but tell a child they couldn’t go to prom or a dance, mamma, auntie, pookie and them would be on the scene ready to fight. We grade schools and fire educators and say that they are not highly qualified. Who grades the homes and the neighbors and society about what’s important?

 I taught one summer at Miami Northwestern, when the superintendent of schools at that time, Dr. Rudy Crew threatened to end football at the school for a host of reasons. I asked my students at the time what they thought about it and they said if there was no football, there should be no school, that crime would go up and everybody would start going jail. The community raised unholy heaven and needless to say there was football that year. What if that same concern was raised all the time about education and for the laws that affect it?

When it comes to the child, the old quote about the horse and the well and drinking does come to mind. We can fund education, we can pay staff, we can have the right laws and do all the right things in the end the student must come to school, go to class, be receptive, have a dream and a goal for their future, try their best and despite any odds against them finish the course that has been set in front of them. If Richard Allen can do it so can Raheem, if Jane Adams & Mary McLeod Bethune can do it so can Shaniqua, Marie and Rosa, if immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Africa, Asia, former slaves, German & Irish immigrants and a host of others can do it, then so can our children today.

Now we come to those who we honor teachers. Teachers can make the difference. A child, who is the variable that is influenced throughout this equation, may not have all the money, or care at home. A child may get negatively impacted by the rules of the government and school districts. A child may not have the support of family and neighbors, or even be in a safe environment. But where all those areas fail a quality teacher, with love of children and a belief that children deserve a chance, that teacher can make a difference. That teacher gives until the end (love, care, time, money, clothes, and advice); they forgive when children have bad days. That teacher fills in the gap of an adult that may be missing in that student’s life. I have no birthed children of my own, but I have more kids than my granddaddy and he had 15.

The role of a teacher, though not praised in this society, is still the most noble and honorable in the world. Even though I am an administrator, I still take some time each day to be a teacher, because that’s what makes the difference.  Your responsibility is to continue to lift up the blood stained banner, your responsibility is to walk and not faint, and your responsibility is that if you have ever cared for children that you don’t leave them where you met them. You and your lessons will run on with that child until they meet the end of time. Your lessons will live on with their children and their friends for generations to come.

This country founded through adversity, racism, discrimination, sexism has a story that is unique;

This country founded through revolution, wars, conquest and treaties is still rare;

This country founded on the ideals that men and women are equal no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or handicap has a purpose.

That purpose being to allow all of its citizens to live the American dream. What is the dream, that dream is to be able to become whatever your heart so desires and give you the tools through education to achieve it. The Right of a Good Public Education is the Responsibility of everyone. Thank you and God bless you all.


*** Mr. Williams is an administrator with Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Miami, Florida. He is currently an assistant principal at Hialeah Senior High School.



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