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First Amendment and education: Two gems

by Mike Ruskovich
| December 11, 2010 8:00 PM

Anyone who values the First Amendment should also value Voltaire and Mark Twain, for both men gave us wise words regarding freedom of speech. I revisited their wisdom after a "My Turn" article published about a month ago caused a barrage of negative responses in this paper.

As I read those responses Voltaire's famous line, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" was a constant reminder to me of what I believe to be our most important constitutional guarantee. But it was Twain's witty quote, "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them," that gave me much-needed tolerance as I considered each of the published retorts from those who were insulted by my opinion that there exists in Idaho a camouflaged distaste for education.

I actually had more positive responses than negative, but supporters chose - perhaps wisely - to take part of Twain's advice and not practice their freedom of speech in a public forum. I'm guessing they anticipated what kind of reaction they'd receive by agreeing with an article that claimed there was "not only a disregard for education in Idaho but also a disdain for it." Perhaps they showed the prudence to which Twain refers by sending only private e-mails or calling me to say they agreed with the scolding I gave voters for rewarding candidates who supported this year's unprecedented cut of $128 million in state education funds. Or perhaps supporters were simply afraid to voice an unpopular opinion. Either way, I have waited long enough for those who had something to say about the issue to exercise their First Amendment rights, and I now choose to exercise mine by responding to those with whom I do not agree but who have also practiced their First Amendment freedoms. And I can say this about all of them: in their attempts to denounce my original contentions that public schools in Idaho are not valued and are under attack by people who hypocritically pretend to be supporters, my critics ended up showing the very contempt of education to which I alluded.

For example, John M. Clark began his "My Turn" with a rather childish taunt about my white beard and then went on to claim that I need to read the Idaho Constitution, which he uses as the reason for the cuts to education. Of course, he used the document selectively, picking and choosing only those parts that helped his point as he overlooked those that hindered it. He repeatedly cited the "balanced budget" argument and conveniently omitted Article IX, section 1 which states clearly and wisely, "The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools." Two key words are "duty" and "maintain." Mr. Clark avoids showing us that in doing their duty to balance the budget legislators have failed in their duty to maintain public schools. He fails to admit that the choice of one duty over another is evidence of biased priorities in Boise. I know that tough choices have to be made, but an open mind should be able to see that choosing one constitutionally mandated duty over another indicates prioritizing has been done based not on the constitution but on the ideological and political leanings of those in charge. So if Mr. Clark and others who keep banging on the constitution as a cause for delivering a big blow to the expensive irritant education has become to them would kindly read the constitution themselves, perhaps at least some of the hypocrisy could be reduced. And perhaps they might see that education is a duty that many would like to abdicate for private schools or home schooling, which wouldn't cost taxpayers a penny, but which could end up costing, according to the constitution's own words, Idaho its "stability."

This is the point where critics will claim that the duty to maintain education has been met, but this is also the point where they should realize that "maintain" does not mean "reduce." Just because your car still runs doesn't mean you have maintained it. Idaho education still runs, but it is doing so at a level far below that of even last year's already tight budget. And preaching that money doesn't matter in education, as the critics have done, is as illogical as it is irresponsible.

Other writers like Vicci Anderson suggested that if I don't like how things are here then I should just take my unpopular opinion and leave. Really. Rather than stay and exercise my First Amendment rights trying to improve the state where I have lived for more than three decades and where my four kids have graduated from public schools I should quit being a thorn in their sides and go elsewhere. I believe this oversimplified suggestion speaks for itself about the mentality of those who don't value public education. It's also evidence that those who have their heads in the sand are enjoying the view. Ironically, she and other writers extolled the virtues of home schooling in the same articles in which they denied that there was a negative attitude about public education, which is just another example of that good old head-in-the-sand logic.

The biggest gripe my critics had, however, was with my use of the educational backgrounds of the winning candidates. The fact that I pointed out several examples of candidates with less education trouncing the educated ones really hit a nerve and sent a few writers into long lectures about common sense and practicality being more important than a formal education - as if an educated person can't also have common sense - all of which verified my point that education isn't valued by the voters. One writer even used a quote claiming, "Wisdom will be found on the shores of Galilee and nowhere else." In other words, we don't need public school - we only need Sunday school. At least my argument wasn't that simplistic. And at least I argued my point by using already published facts without personal attacks, which is more than can be said for my critics.

Ultimately, all I wanted was for my fellow citizens to think about the fact that giving huge margins of victory to those who gave huge cuts to education sent a message that was at the very least confusing and in essence disingenuous. As irritating as that opinion may have been, I don't regret its publication, for I believe education is right up there with the First Amendment in importance. Like the Idaho Constitution, I value public education as one of this nation's noblest endeavors, giving those who haven't the resources for home schooling or for private schools at least a fair chance at the American Dream. I was one of those kids, on welfare and living in the government housing projects with little legal hope of getting out except for public school, and I believe public education saved my life. I also believe both Voltaire and Twain would understand my fierce loyalty to it as I exercise my First Amendment rights in its defense.

Mike Ruskovich is a resident of Blanchard.

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