One of the principal joys of being an American diplomat is that, more often than not, I find myself living outside of our country during an election season. For while I love the United States very much enough to make a career of representing its interests abroad I can't say I miss being caught up in the incessant 24/7 media circus that has unfortunately come to define the process of choosing our national leaders. It is no different now in 2012, living in Madrid, Spain, than it was in 2008, when I was just returning home from a tour in Saudi Arabia.
What is different, however, between then and now, is the troubling turn of the national tide against support for our public schools; it is a tide that has reached the quintessential small American towns like Poland and that threatens the historical keystone of American progress a free, high-quality, public education.
If you had told me in 1998, when I graduate from Poland Seminary High School, that I would end up living and working abroad, I would have have thought you were crazy. I enrolled at Grove City College, only 45 minutes away, because it was close and affordable, and then made the "big move" to Pittsburgh for graduate school afterwards. The ensuing years would see me head to Washington, D.C., to work in consulting before sitting for the Foreign Service exam and ultimately entering the diplomatic ranks at the U.S. Department of State. Throughout all of these experiences, what has sustained me and allowed me to succeed was the education that I received in the Poland schools.
While you may not realize it, a hallmark of our nation's Foreign Service, much like our public school system, is that it is highly egalitarian. In order to become a U.S. diplomat, one must pass a rigorous written exam encompassing topics of history, law, and government. Upon successful completion of that phase, a candidate is invited to a daylong oral interview process before ultimately being selected for a position in the next hiring class. While I can attest that this process is, indeed, remarkably blind, it shouldn't surprise you that it is highly competitive; it invariably attracts a large percentage of candidates whose resumes tout very selective and expensive New England or West Coast boarding schools and universities, with summers spent learning languages in posh capitals in Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
All of this is to say, I was really shocked when I a public school student from Ohio whose glamorous summers included one spent scrubbing bathrooms (and picking up some choice language of my own) in a now-defunct Youngstown steel mill made the cut. But to tell you the truth, it took me hardly any time at all to realize that I had what it took, that I'd learned and learned well what I needed to know, and that above everything, I was just as prepared and as capable as "the next guy," despite his Ivy League pedigree; and for that, I have to thank the Poland public school system.
What you need to know, however, is that the life that you and your children enjoy in America today largely because of your access to public education is a rarity, an exception to a surprising rule in this world: The entrenched rule of the "haves" and the "have-nots." I saw it most starkly during my tour in Afghanistan, an impoverished place with strict social castes wherein the relatively few "haves" continue to have because their families have always had, and the "have-nots" are caught up in a perennial struggle just to maintain their meager lot in life, with virtually no hope of advancement. In no way was it made clearer to me than in my conversations with Romal, the 19-year-old Kabuli who sold me coffee every morning. He spoke English impressively, read tattered, fourth-hand copies of The Economist in between waiting on customers, and would ask me questions on finer points of English literature about which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't the slightest clue. He, like a surprising swath of people in this world, still saw the United States as a beacon, and he dreamt of getting a proper education in large American university in order to improve his circumstances. What went awkwardly unsaid, however, was that both he and I knew that, unfortunately, that was not likely to be his fate.
But what might surprise you even more is that here in Spain -- a country that, despite its current deep recession, remains a wealthy, highly educated, democratic, First World ally many young people look with envy upon the transparency and equality in our educational and professional systems that is conspicuously less present in theirs. People my age form the first generation born and raised in the post-dictatorship, "free" Spain, and they have indeed seen major modernizations and advancements in their country over the last 35 years. Yet in spite of this, they continue to find themselves hampered by a bureaucratic higher education system that limits their abilities to pursue their career paths of choice and drives many of them to seek schooling opportunities abroad. What's more, I can't tell you how many shocked responses I've gotten from Spaniards when I tell them that I work as a U.S. diplomat. Invariably they will ask me if I come from a wealthy family or if I am related to someone powerful Spaniards are very frank and they will go on to explain that, in Spain, to dream of having such a job would without exception require one to have a high-powered "enchufe" ("connection") Such are the limits even in this prosperous Western democracy.
As I said before, one of the principal joys of being an American diplomat is getting to miss out on the political wranglings of election season. Perhaps an even greater joy, however, is getting to observe the abiding greatness of our country from afar, through the eyes of the outsiders. Wherever I've gone be it the worst Middle Eastern war zones or the most refined Western democracies I've encountered people who continue to uphold America not as a land divided by "haves" and "have-nots" but rather a country united by the principle of "can." They prize the ability of a person, regardless of background or economic circumstance, to further himself or herself through a high-quality, universal public education system.
Regardless of your political affiliation, I'm confident that the vast majority of you would be hard-pressed to argue that you could have gotten to where you are today without a quality public school system. It is for that reason that I sincerely hope you consider the weight of your vote in the next Poland Schools levy on Nov. 6. If your children attend, or have in the past attended, Poland schools, then you should appreciate the superior education that they received and the benefits afforded them by that experience. For all others, you should at least appreciate the benefits to your property values that come with having a well-rated school system. Far from being "yet another tax," a school levy is perhaps the strongest self-serving investment you can make, both in terms of the community as well as in the value of your own home.
In these economic times, many fingers can be pointed by many people at many "causes" or "problems" in our system, some more fair and accurate than others. But what is categorically inaccurate is the notion that by cutting funding to an already-strapped public school system we're going to somehow change our personal and national economic fortunes while maintaining say nothing of improving the key vehicle to the continued competitiveness of Poland's students when it comes to applying for colleges and finding jobs in an ever-more-challenging professional and economic environment.
Matthew Morrow (PSHS '98)?
Foreign Service Officer?
U.S. Department of State