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Talking About Public Education: The Good, the Deceptive, and the Destructive

Tired of the articles on how to handle your impermeably asinine relatives over the holidays? Should you try—really, earnestly try—to actively listen to grievances, striving to ferret out some common ground? Or should you prepare an ironclad arsenal of damning facts about the inequitable economy, tax plans, health care and international diplomacy in an effort to demonstrate your well-researched convictions? Or avoid the whole thing by sticking to football and the weather (my personal preference)?

The thing about acrimonious family gatherings is that you have to come back, year after year, for more turkey and more disputes. Most of my family knows where I stand, politically at least, and could not care less. I am an excellent euchre partner, and always bring good desserts, and that's enough.

The only contentious thing I ever talk about, at holiday hang-outs or on Facebook (our new town square), is education policy. I will talk to just about anybody—persistently and passionately—about schools, and what it would take to make our public education system not merely workable, but beneficial for all kids in the United States.

This is, by the way, a goal that could largely be accomplished. We have the human capital, the resources and the technical knowledge to transform public education over a generation. What we lack is the public will to do so—for children other than our own, at least.

This represents a sea change in our 20th century national approach to public education, that post-war America where the GI Bill and the Baby Boom made tan, rectangular brick elementary schools spring up like mushrooms in the 1950s. Teachers were in high demand, and state universities were adding a new dormitory every year. Education was going to lift us up, make us (here it comes) the greatest nation on earth.

We don't think that way anymore.

Somewhere in between our rush to put a man on the moon and the advent of computers in all our classrooms, we lost our "public good" mojo, the generous and very American impulse to stir the melting pot and offer all children, our future citizens, a level playing field, educationally. Lots of edu-thinkers trace this to 1983 and the Nation at Risk report, but I think that the origins of losing that spirit of unity are deeper and broader than that.

Recently, I posted an article from American Prospect on my Facebook page—The Proselytizers and the Privatizers: How religious sectarian school voucher extremists made useful idiots of the charter movement (Katherine Stewart). You can read divergent articles on charter schools (the most obvious and deceptive signal of the loss of our sense of "public good" in education) everywhere, but this was a particularly good piece, honest without being accusatory, damning but cautious:


A wing of the charter movement that is ideologically or religiously opposed to "government schools" was present at the charter movement's creation, and has grown to comprise a sizable segment of the charter universe. With the election of Donald Trump and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, it is presently empowered as never before.

 Public confusion about vouchers and charters continues to create opportunities. A lightly regulated charter school industry could achieve many of the same goals as voucher programs. They could drain funding from traditional public schools, deregulate the education sector, and promote ideological or religious curricula—all without provoking the kind of resistance that vouchers received.

I posted the article because it was true and thoughtful.

I live in Michigan, where charters took root over two decades ago. Like a handful of other states, we now know what happens to public education, including healthy districts, when charter schools damage the perceived desirability of one—thriving, publicly supported—school for all children. It's happened all over our state, first in the urban and rural districts, struggling to maintain programming and viability, and now in Alpha districts, as their budgets are diminished and their student populations lured to schools that are "safer" (read: whiter).

After I posted the article, the online conversation was revealing. Teachers (and a lot of my Facebook friends are educators) contributed positive commentary. But there was also a fair amount what Stewart calls public confusion. 

  • A sense that charter schools are, somehow, de facto, better than public schools—simply by the virtue of the fact that they're not public, but selective and special.
  • Assertions that public schools (schools I know well, and have worked in) are attended by children who haven't learned how to behave properly.
  • Blaming teacher unions for doing what unions do: advocating for fairness, serving as backstop for policy that prioritizes the community over individual needs or wants.

None of these things is demonstrably true. The conversation illustrated that many parents and citizens are no longer invested in public education, emotionally or intellectually. School "choice" is seen as parental right, not something that must be personally paid for. There is now agreement with an idea once unthinkable in America: corporations also have a "right" to advertise and sell a for-profit education, using our tax dollars.

Education is a major major public good where we tax the rich in order to provide a public benefit that you get just by right of being a citizen. When they talk about needing to do away with the entitlement mentality, the most problematic entitlement for them is not Medicare or Social Security. It's education. Education is even more of a problem for them because teachers are trying to encourage kids to think they can do more. And that's dangerous.

The core of the public confusion around schooling has been carefully cultivated for decades.

It's worth talking about—the uniquely American principle of a free, high-quality education for every single child—even if the dialogue is heated. We're in danger of losing the very thing that made us great.

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