Marjorie Cortez: Public schooling creates common ground

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 16 2007 12:26 a.m. MST

Last week, our editorial board engaged in a discussion about school vouchers. It's a hot-button issue around here.

Having not seen this year's version of the proposed legislation, it's a little specious to waste editorial space debating the pros and cons. One of my over-arching concerns has been the constitutionality of such proposals. Utah and many states in the West have strong establishment clauses in their state constitutions. Given Utah's journey to statehood, it may have one of the more iron-clad provisions.

We'll see how that plays out. But as we discuss constitutionality, my editor made the point that many states have similar prohibitions, which were in vogue when these states achieved statehood, largely because of bias against immigrant Catholics.

It struck me that in some respects, the same kinds of sentiments fan the flames of the immigration debate. Yes, there are legal considerations and that should be part of a high-minded debate. But some of the rhetoric is racist.

That's probably my greater fear in the voucher debate. We're getting too divided in this nation. We lack common experiences. That's one thing that public education provides, a place where people of different abilities, backgrounds, ideology, religion, no religion at all, race, ethnicity and income levels all come together. There's nothing else quite like it.

Is it perfect? Far from it. The very reason we have the voucher debate is that some parents are unsatisfied with the public education their child receives. This tells me there's a lot of room for improvement. A lot.

If only we could invest a tenth of the fervor over the voucher debate into what is a larger concern — that every child in our public school system receives the best education possible.

We're not there yet. As John H. Jackson, chief policy officer of the NAACP, observed during the 23rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Luncheon on Monday in Salt Lake City, social policy and social practices lead to the disparity in education attainment and health-care access. According to Jackson, black and Latino children are more likely to be placed in special education, to drop out of school and to be taught by teachers who are not certified.

There's a lot wrong with that, especially when we consider that the Human Genome Project determined genetically that all humans are 99.6 percent alike.

Still, we carve ourselves up into groups and subgroups. Some of it is a matter of convenience. A lot of it, I'd venture, is a matter of comfort.

I often think of the experiences of a young reporter who came to us fresh out of graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. She went to Berkeley because she wanted to go to college in a place rich with diversity. The classroom experiences were wonderful. But outside of class, the white students tended to hang with the white students; the blacks with the blacks; the Latinos with the Latinos; the Asians with the Asians. You get the picture.

If anything, we live in culture that enables the Balkanization of America. We have so much choice that we can live our lives in a manner so our ideas and assumptions are not challenged. From the arch-conservative to the radical liberal, there's a radio station, Web site, listserv, newspaper or cable television channel that will probably suit your point of view. No need to consider the opinions or beliefs of others when you can stay in your "safe place."

The problem is, when we stay in our "safe place," we don't grow as human beings. We don't come to understand our fellow travelers. We tend to focus solely on ourselves and others like us. For a country that's supposed to be about civil rights and justice for all, it's a dangerous trend.


Marjorie Cortez, a product of Colorado's public school system, is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com

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