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In a time of polarization, we’re asking Ohioans what matters and searching for what connects us.

Public education, once a 'safe haven,' is now politically divided

Shay Frank/Lauren Green

Dan Greenburg, an English teacher at Southview High school in Sylvania and president of the Sylvania Education Association, says the political attacks on public education are damaging a cornerstone of American democracy. In his eyes, public education was a common ground and a safe haven – even as distrust eroded other institutions.

“That's been the magic of public education,” he said, “in a hyper politicized environment, that we can still come together on issues that matter and for the benefit of kids.”

GOP lawmakers in Ohio have introduced their own version of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill limiting what teachers can say about controversial topics. Greenburg fears for teachers’ job security and public education as a whole as such measures take hold.

“I don't even know if I have a word,” for what’s happened over the last year, he said. “Sad doesn't really encompass, disappointment doesn't really encompass. … It’s now crossed that bounds.”

Information – and misinformation – about Critical Race Theory and other issues has spurred some parents to direct mounting suspicions to school administrators. And Greenburg said teachers and administrators have to be prepared with complete answers. But as in the case of one parent in the Sylvania district, that was not necessarily enough.

“We had answers,” he said, and “the person walked away saying ‘I'm gonna keep watching, I have concerns about this. But ultimately we were able to explain how things work in Sylvania schools that allayed her concerns at that moment..”

For Greenburg, the root of the problem is not what is taught, but the public's de-professionalization – and even demonization – of educators. Some have gone so far as to accuse teachers of indoctrinating and even sexually grooming children; and increasingly, the entire concept of public education has come under attack.

The loss of trust in the education professionals, Greenburg said, is ultimately hurting children and ultimately America. He says that public schools are meant to prepare kids for the real world instead of censoring what they ingest.

“The lessons that we teach in school, at all levels, are models for how we can act as a society and how we can act as a democracy,” he said. “Kids are just trying to make sense of the world.”

And for educators, Greenburg said, the goal is to help kids “in ways that are productive and appropriate,” to foster critical-thinking skills “to make sure kids understand issues and know how to investigate and filter and find facts.” Politics, he insisted, is left at the door.

Politics and the pandemic have both battered public education over the last two years, Greenburg said. Yet there are silver linings.

For one, Covid economic relief money such as the American Rescue Plan has helped stabilize the often uncertain finances of public schools.

Another positive piece, he added, “is respect for the institution and the professionals in it.”

And perhaps most importantly, he said public schools thrive because of the reason those professionals became teachers.

“I still love teaching kids, I still love being part of this community,” he said. So when the bell rings and classes start, “this other stuff – that's noise.”

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