Editor’s Note: This week, Americans United is marking the return of the school year with a special series of education-themed blog posts. Today we conclude with a reminder of the important role public education plays in the lives of all Americans.  

As our special series of education-themed blog posts comes to a close, it’s a good time to take a step back and look at the big picture – why we as a nation must continue to value, support and defend secular public education. 

Forces exist in this country that would either like to privatize our schools or “Christianize” them (along the lines of a narrow definition of that faith, of course). Both are misguided and must be resisted, and separation of church and state can be a powerful tool to stop them.

And stop them we must. Remember, our public schools do more than simply perform the critical role of secular education for all; they also encapsulate the idea of the “public good” – tax-funded institutions that strive to lift up everyone and, in turn, provide important benefits to every American.

In a country where tales of rugged individualism form a large part of our national mythology, it can be difficult to get some people to grasp why the public good is important. One reason is that we all rely on that concept, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

In the arena of public education, a simple statistic is telling: 90 percent of American children attend public schools. When they emerge as adults, they will work the jobs that propel our economy. They will run our government. They will determine the direction of our culture. They will make decisions on crucial issues such as health care, the environment, international relations, tax policy and a host of others.

It’s in everyone’s interest that the next generation is prepared to do these things, and only the public school system is uniquely suited to give that 90 percent the tools to do it. 

That’s why no one should make the mistake of believing that they don’t benefit from public education – even if they have no children or send their kids elsewhere. It’s like arguing that people who buy books from Amazon or don’t read books get no benefit from a public library.

We all have a stake in public education and the educated citizenry it gives us. When it succeeds, our nation succeeds. That’s one reason why it’s counterproductive to siphon scarce public support away from the system or allow our schools to become riven with sectarian disputes.

Yet we know that not everyone agrees with this. Powerful think tanks in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere argue for privatization of public education in whole or in part, and Religious Right groups relentlessly hound the schools for being “godless. Sadly, both camps have friends in the White House.

What they forget (or refuse to see) is that in America, we forged the right path. Our public schools, taxpayer-funded and accountable to the people through democratically elected boards, welcome, embrace and educate all children, regardless of how, where, when or if they worship. We crafted a system of public schools that, by law, must focus on teaching, not preaching.

That’s quite an accomplishment. We should be proud of it. We should celebrate it. Most importantly, we should stand ready to defend it against those who, in the name of ideology, would tear it down. One great way to do that is to join Americans United and support our work.