Misinformation and disinformation are making it almost impossible for parents and community members to form common-sense opinions in battles over school curriculum.
Classroom teachers, as well as school and public librarians are trying to figure out how to referee between the First Amendment and proposed book bans. Educators, school and library board members report threats to themselves and their families. School board members have almost gotten into a fist fight after an acrimonious board meeting. Accomplished and respected school superintendents, teachers, public librarians and board members are resigning because of irreconcilable differences.
Sadly, these shocking scenarios have become everyday occurences in school and library districts across Illinois — and the nation. Indeed, public schools and libraries have become one of the biggest battlegrounds in the so-called “culture wars” and the cancerous polarization they bolster.
Clearly, the foundational pillars of democracy — schools and libraries — are being threatened by this conduct. Regardless of our political affiliation, we should all be able to agree that students of all ages must be our first priority, and that divisive politics have no place in our schools and libraries.
Divide and conquer is no way to govern public education and libraries, and it is setting a horrible example for our children and grandchildren. It is also making it impossible for classroom teachers and librarians to do their jobs, as children are seeing and learning grievance, resentment and disrespect, rather than civics and civil discourse.
Remember when, not so long ago, public education was about giving our kids the opportunity to learn, explore and acquire skills for a career and life? Wasn’t it once laudable that public education allowed young people to better understand different points of view, so they can make informed judgments throughout life? How did we allow ourselves to end up in a place where “my way or the highway” dominates?
COVID did not create the anger and polarization that we’re seeing every day in our politics and public discourse; but it did exacerbate the intensity and ugliness. The other thing that has happened during the pandemic, according to numerous studies, is that many students in our public schools have fallen behind. So, this is precisely the moment when we should be lifting up public education and the libraries that enhance the learning experience.
In a matter of weeks, voters in school and library districts in communities across our state will have the opportunity to choose board members to serve as stewards of policies and finances that guide these vitally important institutions. Frequently, municipal races are low-turnout elections. We hope that is not the case this time around. There is simply too much at stake for shrugs and disconnection.
We urge voters to make the time and effort to learn about the candidates running for school and library boards in your district; understand what positions they’re taking; and vote for those whose approaches are constructive rather than destructive.
A generation from now, citizens will be looking back to understand what happened to our public schools and libraries in post-pandemic America. Will they see how shouting, bullying and false narratives
destroyed the pillars of education and learning? Or, will they see that communities lifted their school and library boards above polarization and acrimony, putting students and educators first, where they belong?
The answer, Illinois voters, is in your hands.
• Republican Jim Edgar is former governor of Illinois (1991-1999). Democrat Jesse White was Illinois secretary of state (1998-2022). Democrat Cheri Bustos is former U.S. representative from Illinois’ 17th congressional district (2013 to 2023).