On April 23, Sen. Tom Harkin announced at Jordan Creek Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, that he was planning to introduce the “Keep Our Educators Working Act.”

The senator’s proposal appears to be in response to the recent layoff of teachers nationwide and specifically the 74 teachers recently laid off in the Des Moines school district. Due to the recession and rapidly falling housing prices, school districts across the country have fallen short of budget expectations. Many are looking at reducing the number of teachers on staff.

Most notable are San Francisco, with the announced layoff of more than 900 teachers, and New York, with the possibility of more than 11,000 teachers being laid off.

Our education system faces more than just teacher layoffs. Many districts are closing schools. There’s a call for mass school closures in Kansas City and the fear that Detroit might close as much as 25 percent of its schools. All of this is forcing many districts to push for larger class sizes.

In the next few years, we will probably see class sizes rise from 20 students to 30 to 45. This will detrimentally affect the quality of education.

Harkin’s proposal is an interesting idea that might have the power to slow both the loss of teachers and the growth of class size. Like any stimulus or bailout package, it lasts as long as there is funding. Eventually the stimulus goes away and, if unchecked, the old problem re-emerges.

Unless Americans change how we provide and fund public education, the above numbers will become a reality for both large and small districts. These financial setbacks are an unwanted realization for a national education system that is steadily falling farther behind the rest of the world.

This trend should call those interested in democracy and social justice to action. We cannot sit by and watch the weakening of an educational system that countless poor and middle-class families depend on.

Americans must be reminded that our current educational funding crisis is a crack in the very foundation of our democracy. It is more desperate than the recent financial crisis or the need to reform health care. In recent decades, we have forgotten that democracy depends on education. In order to appreciate the need for quality education in this country and other democratic societies, one should reflect on the nature of the democratic process. Democracies require the wisdom and understanding of their citizens and those citizens’ abilities to engage in public debate.

If we lived in a monarchy or oligarchy, we would insist that our rulers be well trained and suited for the job. The same reasoning applies to our democratic republic, which is essentially ruled by the citizens.

Why do we spend so much time teaching civics and history in high school? Because we desire that those who will soon be voting on the issues of the day understand how those same issues emerged. Education is important for society because it ensures that the voters are informed of how the process works and what is at stake.

John Adams reminds us that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” In like manner, Thomas Jefferson argued, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” We often forget that many of the arguments behind the early child labor laws were for the purpose of providing time for future voters to get an education.

In addition to general knowledge, democracies require diversity of opinion. A religiously and culturally diverse population ensures that multiple perspectives exist. This diversity helps develop different solutions for social problems. Our plurality ensures that we are not locked into one way of thinking.

While this is a strength for society, it requires that the citizenry be able to think about and appreciate the different worldviews and perspectives found within society. This requires that future citizens be taught how to think in terms of other worldviews.

Democracies must have public debate. True democratic societies do not yield themselves to closed-door meetings where the elite make policies outside the view of the voters. Democracy demands that the debate be in the public square and that public opinion be challenged.

In a society where anyone can present his or her argument, it behooves the populace to develop the skills necessary to judge between arguments and ideas. While it is good that anyone can present his plan for the future, it does not ensure that that plan is worth exploring. Voters must develop critical-thinking skills – the kind taught in high school and college.

If democracy needs a citizenry that is well-informed, appreciates different worldviews, and possesses critical thinking skills, it is imperative that we place education at the top of our list of social necessities.

If we are not willing to invest in our intellectual infrastructure, we will be left with a society driven by the fear of change or a society driven by what our leaders tell us. The failure to provide our future voters with an adequate education will result in the banishment of liberty to a dusty library where no one goes to read.

It is time to set aside our partisan bickering and work to ensure that our children possess the tools that will protect liberty and democracy for the next generation.

Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain at the Baptist Health Medical Center Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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