Heinen: Education is a shared concern

The change in our relationship to our civic institutions has been one of the most important issues.
classroom full of students raising their hands

The change in our relationship to our civic institutions has been one of the most important issues of the last 30 years and one of the biggest challenges we face as a civil society. From all forms of government to our criminal justice system to our financial system (which plays an important civic role in addition to its economic and business functions) to organized religion to the news media on down to service clubs, all have faced and are facing diminished levels of trust, support, participation and engagement.

Some of the erosion is the result of the pressures of time and resources. But some is also the result of political ideologues sowing seeds of mistrust for political gain — an insidious abuse of power aided by social media tools.

But it is the declining view of education as a fundamental shared value that strikes me as the most curious deterioration and arguably the most in need of repair. I’m thinking about all this as I await an opportunity to meet Matthew Gutiérrez, the next Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent, and ahead of the spring school board elections and yet another school funding debate in the state Legislature.

Wearing my other hat as editorial director for WISC-TV, I put schools on our 2020 editorial agenda. It falls within an overarching theme of “shared concerns” — the foundation of a functioning democracy. Citizenship, community and institutions together address our shared concerns. And while the degree may vary, everyone values education, and thus the health, safety and effectiveness of our schools.

But it needs to be a bigger shared concern. Because education encompasses elements of almost every other societal issue with which we are dealing with today — to say nothing of the essential function of preparing our children for life — education must be our No. 1 priority.

Of course that is easier said than done. The competing priorities are important, too: equity, health care, justice, tolerance, compassion and understanding, healing divisions and more. Yet each of these shared concerns is also found in our schools. Often they are portrayed as barriers to learning. So let’s address them as such.

Our community conversation about schools should be about how to create a big laboratory for innovation and success. We have some of the best thinkers in the world here in our community. Let’s harness the wisdom and vision and act. Housing and transportation advocates, health care providers and nutrition experts, community-minded business leaders, academic researchers, early-childhood experts: share your knowledge and passion with our schools.

School success requires teachers who are respected and supported, and principals who are exceptional leaders and given the freedom to lead. We need to make a collective commitment to search tirelessly for the best methods of teaching and learning; create environments that are safe and welcoming; invest in buildings and technology that are modern, efficient and effective; foster the involvement of families; and make sure our children are treasured, loved, heard and encouraged to tell us what they need to succeed. Most of all we need the civic will to accept nothing less than success. We simply will not settle for anything less.

This city has the talent, resources and opportunity to be a national model of educational excellence. Let’s strive for that.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.