Both parties believe the public schools should exist, so it is not partisan to communicate support for them.
Sometimes people mean “partisan” when they use the term “political”.
Partisan here refers to the existence of political parties or factions. For something to be seen as partisan, the position must appeal to one party but not the other. For example, students and teachers are encouraged to wear red, white, and blue to school on a prescribed date in September in celebration of Constitution Week. The Constitution enjoys popularity with both Democrats and Republicans, though we know they might choose to interpret the document differently. So, wearing certain colors to school in that spirit is not seen as partisan, as both parties support the idea in question. Celebrating Constitution Week would only become a political statement if in fact, one of the two parties decided to oppose the Constitution. At that point, it would then be considered partisan to encourage people to dress symbolically to support a position on which the parties disagree.
Wearing Red4 Ed would only be a partisan political act if one of the major parties opposed the existence of public schools. That has never been in the official platform of either party at any time in history since the founding of public schools in the 1840s. In fact, both parties currently maintain they not only think public schools should exist, but they should be better and more effective. They may disagree about what tactics and reforms might bring about that end, but as with the Constitution, differences in interpretation have not diminished the importance of the Constitution in the country, just as differences over educational reform do not diminish the importance of the public schools in the democracy. So, like wearing red, white and blue for Constitution day, wearing Red4Ed on Wed. simply encourages everyone to demonstrate their commitment to an institution that has a profound role in stabilizing our society and helping it live up to its founding principles.
Teachers need not worry about being political in the sense of being partisan, unless they are advocating positions the parties disagree about. So, do both parties agree the public schools should exist and therefore we should demonstrate support for them and make them the best they can be? The answer is clearly yes. Being a Democrat myself (this is Angie writing here, see the “Meet Us” tab above!), I know we are on solid ground on that side of the aisle. And being married to a Republican and surrounded by an entire extended family of similar mind, I should think they would have informed me if the Republican Party has decided to totally privatize education. If things have changed and my husband has allowed me to go out on this limb ignorant of that shift, he’s going to get the silent treatment when I get home. As you can imagine, it will probably be a welcome reprieve.
Public schools are an arm of the government, and there are good reasons why we entrust government with this function.
Since public school teachers are agents of the state and local governments, all their actions are inherently political. But, we should not just accept this reality at face value. Since education is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution as a function of government, why and how have we come to see the coordination and oversight of education as a proper role of government? While the earliest public schools existed in the 1630s, by the 1870s all the states in the republic had adopted tax-supported public schools. What was their rationale and how did it gain such broad support so quickly in America?
One of the earliest advocates was Horace Mann. In the 1840s, he made a compelling case that tax-supported public schools were the next natural step in the fulfillment of the democratic ideals the new democracy was founded upon: equality of opportunity, the rejection of an entrenched class system, and the development of a citizenry capable of participating in the democracy while at the same time spurring the economy through innovations and inventions. His vision still resonates in America. While the majority of Americans firmly reject equality of results (communism), we do think every citizen should get a fair shake in America. No matter their station at birth, we like to think America is a place where every person can work hard, get a good education, and succeed. The public schools, since their founding and to the present, have been the major vehicle for that vision to become reality. Modern efforts to equalize the quality of the schools, from federal Title I funding (funds the federal government sends to lower income schools) to the Leandro case ruling (the state Supreme Court ruled children have the right to a “sound basic education”) in NC, are just recommitments to the importance of the original idea that equality of opportunity depends on access to a quality education, and the government role in providing that access is appropriate and necessary.
By the post-Civil War period, we developed another function for public schools. With massive waves of immigration, our society was becoming increasingly diverse and pluralistic; public schools were seen as the one institution that might be a cultural unifier, even savior, of the democracy. As ethnic islands flourished in Northern cities, and rural and urban differences grew, it became clear that a common American identity might best be forged in public school classrooms. Today, as society divides itself at an even faster pace into different “tribes” (a term coined by David Brooks in his book The Social Animal) this function of the public schools continues to have relevance. Were education to become purely privatized, this trend towards fragmentation would simply and undeniably gain speed. Andrew Carnegie, in his essay The Gospel of Wealth, predicted the outcome of such a sorting quite well in 1889. He wrote, “Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it.” As we see now, the governmental institutions in such a society strain to function in a climate where so little common ground can be found. The public schools remain our last best hope that as Americans, we have thirteen years of exposure to the full range of diversity in America before we sort ourselves into our respective tribes. There, to the degree that our schools are diverse themselves, we were exposed to people of different races, ethnicities, social classes, and political leanings. Even now, this period seems inadequate in meeting the need for mutual understanding , empathy and compromise required in our diverse and pluralistic society, but one can only imagine how much worse our current divisions would be if the majority of us had not attended public schools.
Given the long history of support for public education in the United States, and the recognition from both parties that the public schools serve a critical and important function in stabilizing and unifying our republic and helping it live up to the promise of our founding documents, I think we can all agree, from the left and right, that Wearing Red 4 Public Ed is not a problematic, but rather a patriotic, act.