At first blush, Robert Ariail’s political cartoon in The State (15 December 2017) warrants praise for unpacking South Carolina’s historical political and judicial negligence in terms of public education:
Taken at the most basic level, a case for equitably funding all public schools in the state so that all students receive what has become the bar—”minimally adequate”—seems beyond reproach.
However, looking panel-by-panel at the implications and assumptions in Ariail’s cartoon exposes that too often the media and public argument for public school funding are also “minimally adequate.”
First, I want to acknowledge that the political cartoon as a form is a challenge that depends on concision, like poetry and Op-Eds. That concision in visual form works through representation and symbolism.
My concerns here are not with Ariail’s skills as a political cartoonist or his broad intentions (advocacy for equitable school funding), but my recurring criticism is that even the best and most ardent in the media have fundamental misunderstandings about education that mars their efforts to support public education, reform, and funding.
The first panel captures the essential flaw with “minimally adequate” through showing a school house in disrepair. This triggers another sincere but deeply flawed effort to support public schools in SC—The Corridor of Shame documentary that proves to be mostly emotional pandering and itself a vehicle for perpetuating horrible stereotypes and misinformation about public education, children and families in poverty, and the role of teachers in high-quality education.
None the less, panel 1 confronts the current and historical problems with “minimally adequate” funding as that approach remains inequitable across the state, primarily for children of color and the poor. But while fully funding school buildings is neglected in the state, the greatest funding issues remain hiring and retaining high-quality teachers and then insuring that all students have access to small class sizes as well as veteran certified teachers.
Panels 2, 3, and 4 offer a much more complicated and flawed case for funding schools.
First, panel 2 suggests that schools alone produce student quality. The truth is far more complicated since measurable student quality is driven mostly (60%) by out-of-school (OOS) factors—the home and community—with teacher (10-15%) and school quality (20%) constituting a much smaller role that cannot counter the greater OOS influences.
Panel 3 is a popular, but misguided belief that formal schooling and worker quality are directly and causally related; they are not. Gerald Bracey and others have documented for years the myth that so-called educational quality, workforce quality, and the economy are strongly inter-related. Here, the problem is seeing formal education as mostly about preparing workers (instead of the larger call for schools contributing to our democracy) and failing to recognize that worker quality and the economy are much more influenced by public policy than schools.
While SC is negligent about equitable funding of schools, the state is horribly negligent about workers’ rights, creating high-quality and stable jobs, and sustaining a stable economy for all levels of workers—regardless of the education they receive in the first 18-22 years of their lives.
So by panel 4, our entire gaze is on the impact of schools on the lives of everyone; the myth of education as the “great equalizer” is perpetuated by the cartoon—a belief that is fully discredited by the evidence that being white and relatively affluent trump effort (educational attainment) and that the US remains significantly inequitable by race, social class, and gender (again, regardless of education attained).
Ariail is being clever in panels 5 and 6, and the cyclic message of the entire cartoon. I am, however, ultimately troubled by how often even sincere advocates for public education and equitable funding of our schools tend to depend on false and misleading arguments in their advocacy.
The media, especially edujournalism, in fact, are too often both willing and unaware accomplices in the political and judicial negligence in SC and across the US in terms of failing to acknowledge the foundational purpose of universal public education (to create and preserve the democracy) and to advocate for human agency and the broader need for social equity in the state and the country.
It is simultaneously true that states and the country as a whole have failed public education (it has not failed us) and that education will never be the great equalizer or a silver bullet for the entrenched social and political failures of America.
The time is far past due to focus on equitable funding and support for all schools as a social contract with every family and child in every state of the US. But with that, we must also begin to be honest and clear with our advocacy—schools are not now and have never been an institution we can treat as separate from all of society or one that drives the entire society.
Our schools both reflect and perpetuate what matters to the political leadership of the state, but formal education is rarely revolutionary or a change agent since it is a mechanism of the political system.
Schools are being neglected, and then some children are being neglected in SC as they have been for decades; those children and their families are the most vulnerable among us because of racism and extreme poverty, and it is unconscionable that we persist in that negligence.
Sentiment without accuracy ultimately is part of the problem and not a path to the solution.