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Susan Johnson

Susan Johnson Susan Johnson

If aliens flew to Earth on any given Friday night in October, they would see a strange ceremony taking place in thousands of communities large and small across America.

The ceremonial crowning of the high school homecoming king and queen at halftime of a football game is more than an American tradition: it is a rite of passage — just like prom and graduation — from American childhood to American adulthood. It is a common experience that bonds us as a culture.

In short, the American public school is where we learn to be Americans.

In the United States today, the homecoming king and queen can be Black, brown, white, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Middle Eastern, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist, physically or mentally challenged, depending on where the alien spaceship hovers. This speaks to the fact that our culture is not tribal. It is not based on religious doctrine. American high school ceremonies have their roots in Greek culture, not Judeo-Christian culture.

Our American education system is based on reason.

The ceremonies we witness in American public high schools are the outward expression of the egalitarian nature of our public education system. It is in public school where our children learn the basics of civic government, science and history. It is where they unlearn the prejudices and discriminations of their respective “tribes.”

For example, in 1971, my father threw a fit when I was assigned two Black roommates from inner cities at a student government seminar I attended in Washington, D.C. This just “wasn’t done” in a Southern culture. Yet, rooming with those girls taught me everything about being a citizen in a free and open society — a society founded on the dream of equal opportunities for all.

We all know that teacher who gave us this kind of education. The civics teacher who taught racial discrimination by dividing the blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children into groups and demonstrating how discrimination feels. The English teacher who required us to read the works of Langston Hughes, as well as Robert Frost. Sandra Cisneros, as well as Emily Dickinson. The science teacher who showed us that the earth is round. Who showed us how viruses replicate and how species evolve.

In public schools, the public decides the curriculum. The public votes to elect school boards who decide the facts our children will be taught. We leave high school and enter college or the workforce with a common set of civic norms and agreed-upon facts that are derived from reason, critical thinking and the scientific method.

In charter schools, a private board decides the curriculum. Same for private schools. One board might teach that the earth is flat. Another might teach that the pope is infallible; another might teach he is the anti-Christ.

Many children are homeschooled using private instructional programs — some that are online — that are marketed for particular religious and political persuasions. For instance, one might teach that the Founding Fathers were white men and, therefore, only white men should be deciding things. The state — whose reason for funding education is to have an enlightened citizenry — will be spending our tax dollars on a mishmash of ideologies and alternate facts.

We have seen where this leads. In some Middle Eastern cultures, private schools called madrassas have been known to engage in religious and political indoctrination beginning at a very young age, even including combat training with military weapons. These are the people who brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Based on the rhetoric we are hearing from certain domestic terrorists, are we very far away from schools like that in America? Proud Boy Academy? Boogaloo Boot Camp?

The pandemic has had the unexpected consequence of drawing millions of kids into private schools, many of which had a more relaxed policy toward attendance, mask wearing, distancing, etc.

With West Virginia continuing its lurch toward more charter schools and broader vouchers, prepare for a further weakening of public schools and common curricula. Get ready for cuts in teacher positions, salaries and benefits. Less money for arts and music and special programs like the one that sent me to Washington, D.C.

Get ready: Out-of-state vendors and consultants are lining up to obtain lucrative state contracts to set up charter schools and sell online homeschooling programs.

If passed as is, the House education bill will make for a patchwork of educational experiences that will send our high school graduates out into the world already divided.

Those worms, once turned loose, cannot be put back in the can.

Susan Johnson, of Richwood, is a retired journalism teacher and former mentor of West Virginia’s only PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab.

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