Public Education Must Be Our New Frontier

Of all the impassioned debate we've witnessed in this presidential campaign, there has been remarkably little said about a policy issue critical to America's future: public education. When the candidates have talked about education, they have primarily focused on higher education, which is provided through colleges and universities. Our presidential candidates have largely been silent about their views on and plans to enhance K-12 public education. This is worrisome. Does the lack of focus suggest the candidates don't consider K-12 education as important as addressing terrorism, immigration, the economy? Do they fail to recognize that our schools play a powerful role in overcoming these and other challenges facing our nation?

Too much of the public discourse has focused on the negative, encouraging division and animosity rather than engendering a spirited but positive dialog about the way forward for our country.

Recently, I was in Boston with more than 6,000 school board members from every state in the country and they shared my desire to hear the candidates talk about K-12 public education. School board members told me that people in their communities share the same interest. That doesn't surprise me. People across the country realize that public education is critically important. It always has been and always will be.

Our public schools give us reason for optimism, for hope. On the issue of immigration, for example, it's important to remember that public education is our nation's most successful tool for assimilating immigrants into the national "melting pot." It is our public schools, after all, that impart onto millions of young immigrants our unique American values: love of country, religious tolerance, freedom of speech, indeed all of our democratic values.

Public education also offers solutions on the issues of our economy, the shrinking middle class, and the future prosperity of America. It is our public schools that will provide the educated, innovative, and creative workforce of tomorrow -- the entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, and political leaders who will ensure that our nation will flourish in an increasingly competitive global economy.

I cannot think of an important issue facing America where public education doesn't have a role in providing the solution. Perhaps, most importantly, public education is essential to ensuring an educated electorate that can protect our treasured democracy.

In a political environment where we see too many false promises and emotionally charged policy proposals, it is critical that our public schools teach young citizens to think for themselves--to objectively analyze what candidates are saying on the campaign trail.

If we have such an educated citizenry, this nation will be ready for the challenges of today and tomorrow. That's been proven many times in our nation's history. I recall one instance in 1960, when John F. Kennedy, during his presidential campaign, proposed that the nation stood at the edge of a "New Frontier." He called it "the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes."

Kennedy's words were a call to action. This young and confident leader believed the nation possessed the political will to stand up to the challenges of the Cold War, to confront the difficult issues surrounding racism and civil rights, to maintain the economic prosperity of the nation. Instead of succumbing to fear and pessimism, to retreating in the face of the nation's challenges, he called upon America to be courageous, optimistic, and determined--to overcome and prevail.

In his remarks, Kennedy invoked the courage and optimism of the 19th century settlers who crossed the American prairies and started new lives in the American West. "They were not captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags," he said. "They were determined to make the new world strong and free -- an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without."

I hope that young people will someday say the same about our current generation of political leaders and citizenry, because the New Frontier that Kennedy invoked still stands before us. There is a brighter future ahead if we seize it.

I see public education as our New Frontier. The vehicle that takes us to this frontier is a generation of highly educated citizens who can think for themselves, who have the confidence to solve problems, and who are ready to be the leaders of tomorrow. Public education is a means of ensuring we have the will and insight to take on this challenge. Indeed, it is our public schools that will take America to its New Frontier of a bright and hopeful future.

It's up to us to ensure that public education is supported with sound policies at the local, state, and federal level. So let's take the first step and give public education the attention it deserves. Let us insist that our political candidates--whether running for president, mayor, or legislator -- begin talking about the importance of public education and sharing their ideas about key steps we can take to improve our public schools.

Let's take that first step to the New Frontier.