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At the heart of a cascade of civic concerns during this election year – viral pandemic, racial inequality, climate change, pollution, traffic, law enforcement, joblessness, privacy, free speech – lies the challenge to our leaders and their constituents of reasonable assessment of these problems combined with clear and concise dialogue that can find solutions. Educated and rational discourse is essential if we, as a community, region, nation and planet, are able to overcome such existential threats.

Education is the great equalizer, a key component of our lifeline to sanity, prosperity and, ultimately, survival. Currently, amid concern for the safety of students, faculty and support personnel, schools are faced with a monumental dilemma… how to continue and expand the scope and quality of education for students of all ages and economic status. Since colonial days, public education has been recognized as a cornerstone of a free society. Although not equitably applied to all children and challenged by religious and political advocates, public education has progressed from rudimentary, one-room consolidated instruction for select children to universal, compulsory, age-related curricula. Even today, however, public education struggles to provide standardized instruction and adequate funding. Now, a new and powerful enemy, COVID-19, has emerged to join other less obvious impediments to a free, independent and impartial educational system.

The political ramifications of education are profound and well understood by those in power. Historical reference and context, admission to economic and societal strata often depend on the quality and extent of education. Exposure to a variety of ideas and concepts forms the basis of independent thought and action. Societal norms can be challenged and subject to intense inspection by those offered an opportunity to use critical thinking while observing the world around them. Free and public education transcends social status and provides portable, functional and practical tools for the general population.

The hallmark of a democratic form of government is the ability of its population to exert influence and control over those elected to positions of power. When the flow of information and education is restricted, so too will government gravitate toward aristocracy and autocracy. The current crisis of public education is the result of not only a viral pandemic, but a challenge to the idea that meaningful participation in government requires an educated electorate.

One of the most influential figures in education, John Dewey (1859–1952), believed that through education, not only could students become knowledgeable, but also learn life lessons to encourage social change and reform. In the midst of a health crisis, it may not be possible to use prior educational models, but it is important to continue our commitment to public education. Progress from restrictive and elitist opportunities through reforms of desegregation, funding, gender inequality and the digital revolution are steps in the right direction but, so far, incomplete. While many schools may be forced to rely on distance learning for the immediate future, the will to fund them and the professionals we entrust with educating succeeding generations should be of the highest priority.

As we approach a new school year, our schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions deserve and should be reassured that their communities and constituents are united in support of a quality curricular education and all related extracurricular aspects of character development. Our nation depends on it.