Across the country, public schools are preparing to welcome an influx of refugee children from Afghanistan.
It won’t be easy. Many of these youngsters don’t speak English; some are dealing with trauma from the war. Others have been educated sporadically, if at all.
Despite the challenges they present, these children will be embraced by our public schools – and that’s nothing new; it’s what the schools do.
I was struck by this comment by Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the National Education Policy Center, who told The Washington Post: “None of that is new to schools. Soon after public schools began serving children in this country, there were waves of refugees that public schools were asked to educate and provide additional services for.”
In Fairfax County, Va., high school students formed a buddy system to help the Afghan students navigate the system. In Austin, Texas, an elementary school teacher began brushing up on Pashto and Dari, two languages common in Afghanistan. In Ellsworth, Wisc., high schoolers raised funds to pay for school supplies for Afghan students who live two hours away.
In Austin, The Post reported, public education officials knew that refugee students would be coming so they “went into high gear, holding staff trainings that focused on Afghan culture, ways to support students, and referrals of those with signs of trauma to culturally competent mental health providers.”
It remains fashionable among Christian nationalists, extreme free-market conservatives and others on the far right who hate everything to do with the government to bash our public schools as fonts of socialism and rampant liberalism.
The Afghan students and their families probably see it differently. To them, these public schools are a lifeline, providing a critical resource that will help young people facing difficult circumstances make a successful transition to their new lives in America.
No network of private schools, no voucher plan, no alleged system of “school choice” can do what our public schools have done, are doing and will do to educate every child who walks through the door. It doesn’t matter if the child doesn’t speak English. It doesn’t matter if he or she is homeless. It doesn’t matter if a young person is a refugee. It doesn’t matter if he or she is LGBTQ. These students can be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Pagans or Humanists. Some of these students have special needs. Again, it does not matter – all will be welcomed; all will be nurtured; all will be educated.
It’s an accomplishment we should be proud of. And let’s be clear, it’s one that no private system is willing – or able – to take on.
Public schools serve the public good. They don’t discriminate. They raise up all young people. Only they deserve access to taxpayer funds.