These are tough days for public schools. Districts across the state are facing cuts while legacy retirement costs explode. School leaders are forced to make incredibly tough decisions about curricula, consolidations, furloughs, and extracurricular activities.

There are plenty of reasons to fret about the future, especially as charter and magnet schools continue to erode limited tax support for our public schools. It is especially worrisome for new and prospective educators, particularly those graduating this spring as countless districts are cutting teachers.

Against this frightening backdrop, it is important to be reminded of some history. We have not always had free public schools available to all in Pennsylvania or the rest of the United States. Think about that for a moment. Can you imagine a community without public schools?

Much of what informed the framers of the Constitution can be traced to William Penn. His views on religious freedom, representative government, and the value of education profoundly influenced the founders.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of Pennsylvania's first free and public educational system, founded in Upper Darby. It was born of the spirit of the Revolution. Yet it took more than a half-century after the founding of the country to be realized, and 119 years after the death of William Penn.

In recognition of this milestone, I invited Lou DeVleiger, superintendent of Upper Darby schools, to visit Susquehanna University for an occasion when we honor students who feel called to teaching. He was outstanding in describing his own call to education, the extraordinary impact good teachers have, the need for teachers to keep learning, and of the value of humor for keeping it all in perspective.

Upper Darby is a large, diverse district that serves students from 60 countries and from homes where 70 languages are spoken. In one poignant story, DeVleiger described a new immigrant student who was ably and admirably learning English. He asked, "Mr. DeVleiger, what does it mean to be 'pretty ugly'?"

The funding and state of American public education today might well be described by the phrase pretty ugly. We are bombarded by reports that our place in global comparisons is falling. The same goes for educational attainment, test scores, and drop-out rates. And then there are the fiscal challenges.

It's a pretty ugly picture for new graduates. Yet Devleiger made it clear that education remains a vibrant and special profession that makes a great difference. He lifted up these bright and committed budding teachers with his words and example.

As I closed the program, I reflected on the historic importance of the creation of free public schools. I told our future teachers that Thomas Jefferson called farming the most noble profession. Were Jefferson alive today, I postulated that he might call teaching the most noble profession of the 21st century.

While our public educational system is under fire, let's not lose sight of all the good its teachers and schools have brought to our nation. Let's also not forget the critical role our founders imagined for education. Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be both free and ignorant in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

We need our public schools because they create the educated citizens necessary to sustain the experiment in democracy that started here in Pennsylvania 236 years ago. We need great teachers, like those Lou Devlieger inspired at Susquehanna, to take up this noble work.

L. Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University.