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Jack Schneider: What is “Public” about Public Education?

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Jack Schneider is a historian of education at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. He and Jennifer Berkshire recently published a superb book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, which I recommend to you.

The “Public” in Public Schools

There are two stories that we tell over and over these days about our schools. The first is that schools are a mechanism for getting ahead in our society. In a competition of each against every, schools are the ostensibly meritocratic sorting mechanism that determines who gets what. The second story is that schools are the engine of the economy. Education builds human capital, which in turn promotes economic growth.

These aren’t entirely wrong. Despite the fact that the privileged work feverishly to tilt the playing field for their children, schools can and often do serve a leveling function. And it is impossible to imagine the American economy thriving in the same way without an educated populace. Yet this is a torturously narrow way of understanding the value of public education.

We don’t have public schools in this country so that young people can win advantage in an unequal society (and we especially don’t have public schools so that racially and economically advantaged families can launder their privilege). Nor do we publicly fund education so that the private sector can reduce the costs of training labor. Instead, we tax ourselves to pay for universal K-12 education because public schools are the bulwark of a diverse, democratic society. 

The founders knew this. As early as the 18th century, leaders were making the case that education was too important to be left to the whims of the market. If the young republic was to be governed by the people, those people needed access to schooling. Of course, education wasn’t universal from the outset; racially minoritized students were excluded and segregated, low-income students attended poorly-funded schools, and students with disabilities were refused at the door. But access to public education increased in commensuration with the recognition of other rights. Over time, our notion of “we the people” has expanded most obviously in our schools, and the benefit of this has accrued to all of us. We live in a stronger and healthier society because of our investments in public education.

And public schools weren’t merely seen as purveyors of academic content. As early advocates like Horace Mann understood, an increasingly diverse society needed a mechanism for fostering civic relationships and mutual understanding. Schools could draw young people from various walks of life together under a common roof and teach them to work in common cause. Although this inclusive vision of education has often remained an elusive ideal, integrated schools are also a reality. They have strengthened all of the communities in which they exist, and at a time of increased social fracturing it is perhaps more important than ever to heed the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall—that “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will learn to live together.”

As Jennifer Berkshire and I document in our new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (which Diane wrote about in The New Republic), public education in this country is presently facing an extinction threat. Those who wish to privatize it like to make the case that the “public” part of public education isn’t so important; in fact, they argue that it’s a liability. I vehemently disagree. In the nineteenth century, we had a system much like the one envisioned by the radical right. And is essential to remember that public education was developed as a replacement for that largely-private system, which had proven insufficient at advancing the public good. There are things that all young people in this country should learn, and common destinies for which they should be prepared. Moreover, this is work that should be done in equal fashion for all, since we all stand to benefit from the education of our populace.

We’ve been so distracted by the use of schools for social mobility and economic sorting that many of us have forgotten about the essential role education plays in making and sustaining an American public. Yet what other institutions do we have for fostering the kinds of civic virtues that increasingly seem so short in supply? Shall we leave it to private entities to build that public? Do we trust that the profit motive will advance the interests of us all? Whatever the flaws in our existing system, we risk tremendous harm in unmaking it. 

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