Kansas educators shield students from rhetoric and ensure ‘liberty and justice for all’

November 14, 2023 3:33 am
Visitors on April 6, 2023, at the Kansas Statehouse observe the third-floor mural commemorating the landmark Brown v. Board decision.

Visitors on April 6, 2023, at the Kansas Statehouse observe the third-floor mural commemorating the landmark Brown v. Board decision. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The first observance of American Education Week was in December 1921 after the National Education Association and the American Legion adopted resolutions to promote public education’s accomplishments and impact in the United States. Today, we celebrate annually during the week that precedes the Thanksgiving holiday. While many of us have much to give thanks for, one thing we can all count among our blessings is that — as Americans — access to opportunity is guaranteed through public education.

I am a native Kansan and a lifelong music teacher. Keeping our kids in Kansas keeps Kansas strong, and I know firsthand the role that public education plays in those endeavors. Those who wrote our state constitution agreed as they charged our elected officials and, specifically, the state Legislature with providing for intellectual, educational, vocational, and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools. Today, celebrating American Education Week is more important than ever.

In Kansas and nationwide, the promise provided by access to education is being used as a political football where students are stuck in the middle. But in our classrooms, educators are undeterred. Just as educators ensure fairness on the playground, we resist efforts to use misinformation and disinformation to cast our classrooms unfairly. We resist rhetoric that seeks to discourage and weaken our public schools. And we resist tactics that isolate our most vulnerable students as “less-than” or undeserving of the promise of opportunity defined by the constitution.

Each day, students are given the opportunity to place a hand over their heart, face toward our nation’s flag, and participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. We all know the pledge closes with the words “with liberty and justice for all.” But for some students, freedom and justice are at risk as partisan strategists work hard to force policies that marginalize vulnerable kids, water down the curriculum, and restrict access to materials that represent diverse points of view. This is all an attempt to stifle critical thinking, creativity, and self-expression and to keep feeding the flames of social/culture wars. But our classrooms should not be a political battleground. They should be safe spaces for every kind of student from every walk of life and with every kind of need to learn and discover freely. 

Professional educators are trained to provide students with appropriate learning experiences that align with their age and cognitive development. Our locally elected boards of education are charged with establishing policies and procedures that reflect the will of the community as a whole rather than a single point of view. Educators know that limiting our students’ perspectives of the world places them at a disadvantage when they enter adulthood as citizens of their community, state, nation and world. Narrowing their worldview does not make kids safer. It simply makes them less equipped to adapt to an ever-changing society while holding firm to their personal beliefs and values.

Educators also know that kids learn and grow stronger because of solid and supportive partnerships between their homes and classrooms. Locally elected boards of education establish innovative mechanisms to ensure that partnerships with parents and the community are foundations of inclusiveness. Our educators value partnerships with parents because most educators are or will be parents themselves.

So as we celebrate American Education Week, we should spotlight the efforts of hardworking Kansas parents who sacrifice every day to ensure their children’s education is the best it can be. To those parents, we rise, applaud and encourage partnerships with the professionals in our public schools.

American Education Week is a time to celebrate the efforts of educators, including support professionals, support staff, and administrators who work tirelessly to shield students from the rhetoric and to teach honestly and authentically. Educators are dedicated to inspiring every student’s natural curiosity to help students discover the unique talents and gifts every child is born with. Regardless of zip code, circumstances and barriers to justice, inclusion, and belonging, educators strive to help all students discover the greatness they possess. Please join me and give a full-throated “thank you” to educators, support professionals, parents and caregivers. Together, we make opportunity and prosperity available for every Kansas student.

Sherri Schwanz is a native Kansan, music educator and president of Kansas NEA. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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