Editor's note: Farai Chideya is a journalist and the author of four nonfiction and fiction books, and she blogs at Farai.com. She is a spring 2012 fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
By Farai Chideya, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Over President’s Day weekend I traveled from the halls of Harvard to my childhood home in Baltimore, a city far better known for The Wire than its education system. On Saturday night, I heard my mother coach a parent by phone on ways to ensure her child was focused and ready to study. My mother retired as a Baltimore City school teacher several years ago, but she still puts in the time to tutor kids through a program run by a local church. She cared about students then, and she cares now. And, although you would not know it from statements like Rick Santorum's attack decrying the "factories called public schools," dedicated teachers like my mother are not an exception. Not all teachers are great; nor all public schools. But the reason I have been at Harvard, twice - once for my undergraduate education, and now again as a teaching fellow at the Institute of Politics - is based on my parents’ efforts and the excellence that was present in public schools.
That's right - excellence. It's there. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to explain how I benefited from just one of the many extraordinary teachers in my life in a public service ad encouraging people to teach.
Now, to say that excellence is embedded in public schools does not mean every school is excellent. My mother had to push and advocate for me to switch schools between first and second grades, because the neighborhood school I started at just was not up to snuff. (In fact, a few years later, it was shut down.) Not every child is lucky enough to have a parent who is a warrior for their child, who makes sure that in a district of mixed educational outcomes, their kid gets the best education he or she can. There is a vast inequality in education not only between school districts, but within them.
But I've had just about enough of the attacks on the integrity of teachers and public schools. Many of them are fighting heroic battles on behalf of America's children. No one with a lick of sense goes into teaching to get rich. Some people do drift into the profession with a lack of vision, training, or both. Yes, America's classrooms can be unforgiving, both to students and teachers. But within the tapestry of American education, with all of its rips and holes, there are also diamonds woven into the fabric - teachers of imagination, skill, and perseverance against all odds.
My mother stayed in the City schools when she could have made more money in the County. She chose lower-income schools, including one that was walking distance from the house I grew up in, when she had the seniority to go to cushier, more well-funded neighborhoods with more classroom resources. She spent her own money on supplies for her sixth grade science class, and once had to buy a heater because in the dead of winter, her classroom was freezing cold.
Years before my mother became a teacher, she demanded educational excellence from me and my sister. Sometimes I resented the pressure; now I understand how much she had to do to make sure we got the best opportunities we could within a system, a city, and a world that is not fair. Isn't that how kids put it? It's not fair. That may sound childish and petulant, but it is also a simple truth that brings its own grounding if taken as an ethical and spiritual challenge. Life is not fair. Education is not fair. So let's make things better.
We can do better by America's children, schools and teachers. The first step is not to put up with any nonsense about the value of public education. Public education is the mark of a civilized society and the foundation of a meritocracy. To the extent that America is meritocratic rather than oligarchic, and offers social mobility rather than stagnation, we must provide the opportunity for a free and excellent education to as many students as possible.
Attacks like Santorum's mask the fact that federal money is a mere 11 percent of the budget of schools. The fact that local property taxes are the base of school funding is part, though not all, of the recipe that results in educational inequality. And this particular attack by this particular Presidential candidate seems to make less sense as he explains it more. This Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation, Santorum warned against a "one-size-fits-all education... and that’s what President Obama is trying to do." Wasn't it President George W. Bush who championed and signed the most sweeping federal education law of late, No Child Left Behind? In 2005, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said we should thank President Bush for his actions. She now says the law "has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education." Ravitch also harshly criticizes President Obama's Race to the Top program, which includes The Common Core State Standards, an initiative to set national benchmarks for students’ academic proficiency.
I am not an expert who can provide a roadmap to solving the country's education problems. But I am a witness to and beneficiary of the power of great teaching, and the strengths of public education. Shouldn't we reinforce those strengths rather than tearing at their foundations? The life of our nation may depend on it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Farai Chideya.