Putting the Public Back in Public Education

What it would take to ensure that nobody’s child is left behind

Public Education Apple

Image by istockphoto.com/Luseen

Content Tools

This article is one of several on fixing education. For more, read  The People’s Professor ,  America 101 , and the online exclusive  Educational Success: Stories of Innovation from the Utne Library .

The public schools have been bad and they deserve to be punished.

That’s the mantra Americans have heard for the past eight years as politicians have scrambled to appease citizens battered by apocalyptic headlines about the state of the educational system, stories that detail how public schools are both epic disasters and the country’s only ticket out of global decline, increasing poverty, and a coming society of dimwits.

And how did an administration hell-bent on warding off any responsibility for its own actions (torture, irresponsible war, a gutter-dwelling economy) react? They’ve assured us that failing schools will be held accountable. They transformed our society’s greatest obligation into its greatest sin.

In 2002, with support from both sides of the congressional aisle, President Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind, federal legislation designed to punish schools into delivering higher test scores. Reformers jumped on the accountability bandwagon, brandishing the joys of abandoning the public schools through homeschooling or providing families with government-funded vouchers for private schools.

The public and its politicians have spent so much time placing blame on unyielding teachers’ unions, stagnant administrative bureaucracies, and mind-numbing curricula that we’ve neglected to reflect on our own role in the problem. Americans need to reinvest, and not just by pouring more money into “the system.” Citizens need to rededicate themselves to the promise of public education, a tradition founded on the ideals of educating every child, unifying a country that’s been diverse since its inception, and instilling the civic-mindedness required of citizens in a healthy democracy (see “America 101”).

So what can our elected representatives do to help turn the tide? A good start would be simply sending their children to public school. In 2007 a Heritage Foundation survey found that, while just 12 percent of American students attend private schools, 37 percent of U.S. representatives and 45 percent of U.S. senators have bailed out on public education and sent their kids to private schools.

The goal of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s study was to shame privileged legislators into granting less well-off families the same “school choice” via vouchers. A different sort of shame is in order, though. If the country’s representatives were invested in the system for the sake of their own children, not just for votes, our schools wouldn’t be morphing into mindless test-prep centers. Teachers wouldn’t be crafting heartbreaking appeals for donations for school supplies on sites like DonorsChoose.org.

Right-wing icon Grover Norquist was on to something when he helped to realign the ’90s political landscape by bullying conservative candidates into pledging never to raise taxes. Citizens should exert the same pressure on their representatives to sign a new pledge that personally commits them to public schools.

For most parents, the situation is far trickier. Countless mothers and fathers do yeoman’s duty propping up their public schools not only with fund-raising initiatives that put the bake sales of yore to shame, but also clocking so many volunteer hours that they more or less serve as unpaid employees.

A sinister meme has begun to infect middle-class communities, and it goes like this: If you really loved your children, you’d scrape together the money to protect them from the horrors of public schools and send them to private school.

The constant refrain of what private schools do better can be deafening: Smaller classes give students more teacher attention, kids are free from the tyranny of standardized testing, and collegial campuses offer functioning facilities. Perhaps most importantly, private schools haven’t drained their curricula of arts and humanities classes. These laboratories of creative thinking have been steadily stripped from a cash-strapped public system ruled by a single-minded fixation on math and science scores.

There is, however, a strong case to be made for the advantages of public schools. They offer more advanced placement and college-credit classes, vocational courses, and work-based learning programs than private schools do. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy found that, after controlling for background factors like student achievement before high school, a family’s socioeconomic status, and parental involvement, public school students performed just as well on achievement tests as private school students did, and made it into college at similar rates.

Then there are the intangibles to consider. For instance, too many private schools have become holding pens for mostly white, wealthy youngsters who head off to college without any inkling of the world beyond their gated communities. Worse, they carry with them the unchecked inclination to recreate this world elsewhere.

The irony is that the elite colleges these students are gunning for are becoming more inclusive (see “The People’s Professor”). Bastions of the ivory tower like Harvard and Stanford are beginning to see the folly of a purebred student body and have retailored their financial aid to lure more middle- and lower-class students. As one Manhattan private school guidance counselor told the New York Post after parents went ballistic over a spate of Ivy League rejection letters last June, “It’s getting harder for private school students because it’s getting fairer for the rest of the world.”

Americans have become accustomed to a debilitating media diet of negativity and cynicism, especially when it comes to education. It’s time to refocus on the success stories, for inspiration and replication, because many of our schools—especially the ones serving students who can’t afford to opt out of the system—are in need of repair.

Exceptional innovation is going on at some charter and traditional public schools. At the Harlem Children’s Zone there’s a Herculean effort to transform one devastated neighborhood through targeted charter schools and holistic initiatives focused on parenting and community health. The Knowledge Is Power Program has set up charter schools that are drastically lifting the performance of minority and low-income students through rigorous curricula and high expectations.

There are also promising new models of public school integration on the horizon in the wake of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that nixed some race-based assimilation efforts. Focusing on class instead of race, and finding that the greatest predictor of student success after family background is a school’s socioeconomic background, a handful of districts are mixing up their schools to raise the performance of all students.

The success of such ventures and the possibility of seeding that success elsewhere depend on politicians, parents, and society at large scrapping the doom-and-gloom mind-set that’s allowed so many to regard our public schools as beyond repair. Public education requires not just public funding and public regulation, but also the commitment of a public that cares. If we’re going to keep talking about accountability, it should be our own.