In the unfinished autobiography my grandmother hand wrote on her deathbed, she recalled the small, rural Kentucky school she attended as a girl in the early 1900s.
Classes were held only a couple of months a year, she said. Her teacher was a rude, ignorant man who, in her words, had nearly no education himself.
Granny always wanted better for her children. As a young wife and mother, she made my grandfather move their family to town from the farm where they worked as tenants in hope the city schools would be better.
Her own great dream once had been to become a school teacher. Due to poverty, primarily, she never made it.
But she drilled into my father, and by extension, into me, that a thriving public education system was the key to intellectual, social and spiritual improvement.
She thought good teachers were about the most important people on earth, second only to preachers in her hierarchy.
My dad fulfilled her dreams: he became a teacher in addition to being a preacher. Years after he died, I still hear from aging strangers who tell me what a terrific impact he had on them in his classrooms. I heard from one just a couple of days ago.
My mom toiled as a public-school secretary for 22 years. She loved the school she served and was much-beloved there in return.
I attended public schools all the way through, beginning with first grade and ending with two graduate degrees from a state university.
My sister taught special education and rescued one of her students out of a lifetime of abuse, group homes and foster care by taking her in as a daughter.
In my church today, we have more teachers than members of any other profession. Not a week goes by without them bringing in prayer requests for students who are hurting or in jeopardy.
My wife’s a teacher. I've watched her (OK, listened, half asleep) as she leaves the house at 6 a.m. to be at school early. She often works seven days a week, grading papers, writing letters of recommendation, organizing lesson plans, reassuring worried parents at night and on weekends. She's helped poor kids from devastated families win scholarships to Ivy League universities. She's paid her students’ fees out of her own modest salary so they can take the ACT.
Literally, I praise the Lord for public schools. Daily, they perform God’s work.
That’s why I’ve been troubled at recent attempts by our governor and some — although not all —Republicans in our state House and Senate to malign teachers and underfund public education.
To its credit, Monday the legislature partly walked back cuts to pensions and other school funding that had been proposed earlier. Thank you.
Few things perplex me as much as watching our teachers insulted as thugs and whiners, and penalized for sins they haven’t committed.
Sometimes, our leaders have shown them — and by extension, all of Kentucky’s citizens — utter disrespect.
The Herald-Leader’s Tom Eblen described the process lawmakers used to ram through last week’s controversial pension bill. The bill, he noted, was passed “with no legally required actuarial analysis, no fiscal statement, no Senate committee hearing, no input from the people most affected and no public discussion.”
Instead, lawmakers attached it to a sewage bill.
The message seemed obvious: public educators are garbage.
Such efforts are only the beginning, I fear. I suspect there’s a larger agenda here.
Somewhere along the line, ideologues on the far right — I’m not talking about good, traditional conservatives — decided to demonize public education, even though it has served so many of us so well, even though it has rescued us and our families from poverty and ignorance.
I hope I’m wrong, but I assume the ideologues want to wreck public schools so they can privatize education. They hope to funnel public-school funds to private charter and religious schools.
Mainly, though, they want to dole out the spoils to for-profit educational companies and further enrich the already rich on the backs of teachers and schoolchildren.
Over time, the net effect would be return us to those good old days when Kentucky children, especially poorer kids, were taught by semi-literate hirelings.
A tactic in this quest is to slander public education among Christians as a breeding ground for atheism and anarchy.
Factually, of course, countless public school teachers are dedicated churchgoers, and even unchurched teachers tend not to be wild-eyed radicals but responsible, middle-class suburbanites with mortgages and minivans.
Indeed, it might be instructive to remember that the public-school system in America was created due to the campaigning of Protestant Christians, who used to view universal literacy — and public education generally — as spiritual blessings.
Do I sound alarmist? Probably. But I’m alarmed.
Public education must not be crippled. It must not be returned to its distant past. The past wasn’t pretty; it was pretty awful.
I hope you’ll pray for our teachers and our political leaders alike.
I also hope you’ll monitor your own lawmakers’ actions regarding education. Come May and November, I hope you’ll remember those actions, good or bad.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.