Shriver on Education

“Unless we stop overcrowding in our schools; unless we reduce the workload of our overburdened teachers; unless we provide more up-to-date buildings we shall never have the chance to solve the other and higher problems of education, which interest you and me and upon which the whole future of our nation may well depend.”
Sargent Shriver |Chicago, IL | February 9, 1955

Our Quote of the Week highlights the importance of education while acknowledging some of the most basic and serious challenges that our underfunded public schools face.

As students of all ages settle back into school, we’re looking back to the beginning of Sargent Shriver’s career in public service, to a time when the quality of public schools was a point of focus. In 1955, Sargent Shriver was the head of the boards of both the Chicago Public Schools and the Catholic Interracial Council. He threw himself into these roles with great passion, addressing the myriad of issues that Chicago public schools dealt with in the 1950s, from funding shortages to segregation. While he held these positions, he delivered the Speech at Kenwood and Murray Schools PTA, from which we’ve taken this week’s quote.

Shriver’s words in the speech underline the importance of adequate funding in education, as well as the vital role of dedicated teachers, parents, administrators, and, interestingly, the media. He says: “[T]he coverage being given by our newspapers to the Board of Education is a great assistance,” pointing out that local publications’ revelations about the exorbitant costs of school construction the previous year, had led to the lowering of costs in the present.

Shriver ended his tenure with Chicago Public Schools and the Catholic Interracial Council when he was tasked by President Kennedy to create the Peace Corps. But he did not forget the lessons learned about education. In 1964, after President Johnson tasked him to lead the War on Poverty, one of the the programs that his Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) created was Head Start, an educational program that provided free, early childhood education and other services for young children from low-income families, and also engages parents and caregivers in their programs, allowing them to learn teaching and other skills for their own advancement. Shriver and his team understood the importance of education in expanding economic opportunity, and their overall plans for providing it proved to be successful. Head Start programs were instantly popular, and today, despite the disbanding of the OEO and various challenges to Head Start, the programs continue to be in demand, serving children and their families in communities around the country. To learn more, visit the website of the National Head Start Association.

Unfortunately, our public education system faces a variety of struggles today. In addition to funding and staffing shortages, particularly in underserved communities, educators and parents are now dealing with new challenges in what has become an environment of increased polarization. Political battles about everything from COVID mitigation to censorship of books place stress on school communities and distract us from the work of one of the most important activities our society undertakes, that of educating our children. It’s time for us to learn from the community-focused, opportunity-rich, values-based approach of programs like Head Start, and to radically expand the concept across our schools at all levels, so that every student, regardless of their background, is able to learn in an adequately-resourced environment without obstacles or interruption.

To be sure, many local leaders throughout the country have made efforts to improve the accessibility, quality, and affordability of education, but to truly expand opportunity for all of us, the issue of education must become a higher priority nationwide. For that to happen, we must be vocal about the importance of education and we must support leaders at all levels of government who understand its value.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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