A view of public education, courtesy of Frederick Douglass
Despite this ability to make a direct decision on how their tax dollars will be spent, only a small percentage of voters in each district will take the time to vote. Whether it is a feeling of inevitability that the budget will pass, or pure and simple apathy, this springtime tradition gets about as much attention in Western New York as Bastille Day.
One American who saw the value of public education was Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave who shocked 19th century white America with his powerful oratory and masterful writing ability.
Perhaps he appreciated the value of education more than others, as he had been born into slavery about 1818. Documenting the birth date of slaves was unimportant in rural Maryland, where it was illegal to teach them to read.
Douglass later wrote, “Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” No one in Western New York is classified as a slave in 2012, but all school districts are caught in an ever-tightening vice that is crushing their ability to provide all-but-essential courses and activities.
School board members are likewise in a difficult position. They must weigh the best course to follow to provide mandated programs and meet the performance levels set by the State Education Department against the average taxpayers’ ability to fund it. Boards can craft only a fraction of the total budget, the portion not controlled by the state and local unions.
I see a connection between the budget dilemma and a broader issue observed by Douglass in one of his autobiographies.
“I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out,” he wrote.
Each of us deserves the best education possible - just as the former slave did. Punishing budget levels and reduced staffing are a “horrible pit” for the present generation of students. Yet it is education itself that should make each of us yearn for alternative solutions “upon which to get out.”
Education is the alpha and the omega of modern American society. Douglass made his way to New York City and freedom in 1838 and gave his first public speech not long afterward, at the age of 23. By the time of the Civil War, he was an internationally known orator, author and journalist. Two of his sons fought in the Union Army.
He was obsessed with conflict between the daily inequality of blacks and his newfound sense of education, employing the written and spoken word to shine a light on the lack of freedom for all Americans. Teaching himself to read and write was an act of rebellion seldom tolerated in the troubled country both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Education was his “ladder.”
Yet he admitted he could not succeed alone. He valued the support of friendly Northerners and progressive black men and women who lived far from the shadow of plantation life.
The students who will be affected by next week’s budget votes and school board races cannot succeed alone either. We must act in their best interest as administrators and board members seek solutions to ugly budget cuts.
Douglass continued his efforts for equality in 1871 when he purchased a home literally in the shadow of the Capitol Building. He had won his own bitter battle for freedom through education and remained an optimist.
“Gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil,” he wrote.
What will you do next Tuesday?
(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)