Sherman Says: A view of public education, courtesy of former slave 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 or simple apathy, this 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 abilities.
Perhaps he appreciated the value of education more than others, as he was born into slavery in 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 American is classified as a slave in 2012, but all New York school districts are caught in a vice that is crushing their ability to provide all-but-essential courses and activities.
School board members 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. 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.”
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. He was obsessed with conflict between the daily inequality of blacks and his newfound sense of education. Teaching himself to read and write was an act of rebellion seldom tolerated in the troubled country, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation.
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 votes cannot succeed alone, either. We must act in their best interest to 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 won his own 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 is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.