Rankin: Community matters | VailDaily.com

Rankin: Community matters

There is a lot said these days about education and the importance of an educated, intelligent citizenry, but where did the idea of universal education begin?  Horace Mann (1796-1859) became known as the Father of the Common School as a member of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837.

It was here that he promoted public education as a way to make “unruly American children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens.” Mann headed the Common School Movement and promoted the idea that every child should receive an education funded by local taxes. Other states were influenced and took up the idea of universal schooling, which we now know as K-12 public education. Mann was determined to establish a system of effective, secular, universal education in the United States.

The United States Constitution grants no authority over K-12 education to the federal government. Education is not a right but rather a privilege and is provided by the states. However, federal law requires that if a state chooses to educate its citizens, it must also offer it to the children people living in the country illegally.

The founders of our country resisted the concentration of power in the federal government. They knew that the protection of freedom required limiting and dividing power. It was better to have decisions made independently by the states.

As the country gets bigger and more complex, the advantages of decentralization of power become even more important. In Colorado, we value local control of our schools. As one state senator noted, “…our state constitution designates your local school board as the primary authority over K-12 public education in your school district: not the governor, not the General Assembly, not even the elected State Board of Education.”

The responsibility for public education in Colorado rests primarily at the locally elected school board level, and even at a more fundamentally essential level, with parents. 

Based on recent surveys, most parents in Colorado believe their local school is performing very well, has the best teachers and students are all thriving academically. Yet, following achievement tests in the spring, only 40% of our third graders are reading at grade level — a huge disconnect.

The key to understanding is to look locally. How well are your students performing? Overall school and district achievement scores should be available. Ask your teachers, principals or the superintendent. Attend local school board meetings. Find out who your local board members are and connect with them. It’s even more critical if you have new members joining your board. Meet with them individually and share your thoughts and speak up during public comment.

As I’ve been traveling around the 3rd Congressional District, I’ve found that the frustrations held by local community members are the same challenges we hear at the state board. Meeting with local citizens has been extremely important in understanding the differences in our Western Slope school districts.

As you know, I firmly believe that the most critical role in education is to prepare children to become successful readers. A study published in the Journal of Child Development finds that having strong reading skills as a child is a predictor for higher intelligence as a young adult.

In the words of Horace Mann: “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent of keepers, would be on a small one.”

Joyce Rankin is on the State Board of Education representing the 3rd Congressional District. She writes the monthly column Across the Street to share with constituents in the 29 counties she represents. The Department of Education, where the State Board of Education meets, is located across the street from the Capitol.