Public Schools. Public.

[Many years ago, at my husband’s class reunion]: Inebriated classmate starts rhapsodizing about the extreme superiority of the education they all got at their well-regarded co-ed Catholic high school in the suburbs of Detroit, back in the day. His monologue derails (did I mentioned he was sloshed?) and he turns to yammering at ME (a public school teacher) about how terrible schools are today (he has no children) and that the public schools—well, they’re the worst of all. Everybody knows that.

I bite my tongue.

I’m used to people assuming that private and religious schools are, somehow, automatically better than public schools. On the face of it, if ‘you get what you pay for’ is a truism, private schools ought to be better than public schools. Depending on your definition of ‘better,’ of course.

Part of the cachet of privately funded education is exclusion. You’re paying for the privilege (a carefully chosen word) of sending your child to a school that other people can’t afford, and having them taught using a set of values (religious and otherwise) that your family has chosen, not been assigned to by location.

You are making the decisions, finding a school with a socio-economic level close to yours, probably, in the hopes your children will make friendships with similar children. There may be scholarship money for students with fewer economic resources, but that involves a different kind of screening and exclusion.

A religious school or an independent private school may be the right choice for your child, and however you get them there, knowing you support the school you chose  (financially and values-wise) will help your child understand that you are committed to their education. And that–is huge.

However. I would have to say that the cause dearest to my heart right now is saving public education.

By saving, I don’t mean preserving a nostalgic, return-to-the-past version of public schools where the curriculum was homogenized, the Common Core a distant memory, and everyone sat in straight rows.

I mean saving public education from going under, totally, being dismantled and sold for parts.

Lots of truly ghastly things have happened to public education in the past couple of decades, the pandemic merely being the worst. Teachers have had large chunks of their professional discretion taken away, and their salaries remain in the basement. The accountability movement has turned the mission of public education from citizenship and job training to improving test scores.

And now, teachers are caught in the squeeze between the challenge of teaching students well, using uneven connectivity and tools they’ve not been trained to use—or exposing themselves to a deadly virus. It’s like the worst dystopian plot ever, set in the most prosaic setting: an ordinary classroom.

And the conflicting parties are not red or blue, conservative or liberal. They’re public and private.

There are some things that need to belong to all of us, be cherished and tended and utilized by all of us, each chipping in as they can, because we understand these things are best accomplished by communal resources and effort: Parks. Libraries. Roads. Hospitals. The Post Office. Museums, theatres and auditoriums. Schools. The people who keep our food supply safe and put out forest fires. And of course, things we must have, like the military, police and prisons.

Public things.

Most pushback against public initiatives and investments stems, as far as I can see, from two impulses:

  • It’s my money and you can’t have it.
  • I don’t want to share anything with them. [Fill in your own personal ‘them’– people who don’t ‘deserve’ to enjoy ‘our’ parks, libraries, hospitals, etc. People who don’t belong.] 

For many people, public funding for things like recycling or early childhood services or a new library represents taking away their right to choose. If you don’t read, recycle or know anyone with small children, maybe It feels like money out of your pocket, your ‘right to choose’ overridden.

You take care of your own, right? You shouldn’t have to meet the needs of others. That this is a profoundly anti-democratic idea doesn’t even occur to you. Selfishness and power-mongering are featured, every night, on the TV news. Its us vs. them—freedom!–not all of us, together.

I would posit that one of the few places a wide range of citizens, including those who are Red and conservative, can find common ground is in support for public schools. I find it interesting (and also annoying) that while nearly all public schools are on a grotesque anxiety merry-go-round academically—open, close, re-open, close again, in-person/online/hybrid—football season went on.

Of course, many games were cancelled, championships will forever be listed with asterisks, and there are literally hundreds of stories about how teams played without positive-for-COVID stars (or with them, accidentally–or surreptitiously).

But schools, parents and players were absolutely unwilling to relinquish a sports season. Back in June, when the second (or third) wave was just a far-off possibility of horror, the Republican Legislature in Michigan tried to put their (fairly worthless) policy recommendations for what would happen to public education on a one-pager. It was vague and propagandistic and did not anticipate the widespread transmission that actually happened in the fall. But they were adamant in the one-pager that sports would go on.

At the time, it just seemed like pandering to special groups of parents. But I think, now, that it might be another sign that even the most adamant proponents of phony, gun-toting rugged individualism might not want to give up public education entirely. They just want to control it, squeeze all the profitability out of it, while still enjoying the great gifts (including Friday Night Lights) it has provided to small communities, for more than a century.

We are at a tipping point with public education—either it is recognized as one of the most useful institutions of community-building and progress, or it becomes just another example of scare-labeled ‘socialism.’ Ironically, we used to use public schools to advance public goals—an educated citizenry, training everyone to be productive and innovative, places to vote and be immunized against disease, places to learn the basic concepts of our American government, a genuine melting pot.

It’s time for that national conversation we keep talking about, but never have: What is the real mission of public education? Forget the over-under on who will be the new Secretary of Education. Let’s clearly define the purpose of public schools and stop supporting exclusion with our tax dollars. It’s well worth the fight.

As Roger Cohen said, today, in his final NYT column:

Exclusion precludes belonging. Racism is a close cousin to nationalism, as America has been reminded. They both depend on scapegoating or persecuting “the other”; on the idea, as Kipling put it, that: “All nice people, like us, are We, and everyone else is They.”

8 Comments

  1. Nancy, I read your post and was reflecting on Michigan citizens support for public schools. I got a hold of the Michigan Department of Eduction’s (MDE) “Fast Facts 2018-2019” to understand how much of K-12 education is private. According to MDE, Michigan has 1,507, 772 K-12 public school students and K-12 “Nonpublic” students of 102,693. In percentage terms, 94% of Michigan students attend public schools. Parents enrolling their children in public schools at 94% seems in action to be a strong indication of support for public education. Furthermore, Michigan State taxpayers (income tax, sales tax, etc.) support public education to the tune of $9,013 per student in 2018-29 regardless if they had children in school. Now, if parents consider that overall student outcomes are below 50% for proficiency across subjects, that is even greater indication of parent hope and support for public schools. Finally, as for the purpose of public education, I think student, parents, communities, and employers have different priorities, but all agree they want graduates of publics schools to be good citizens and capable to participate in the greater Michigan community as a productive people and gain individual satisfaction from that.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I love it when people use data to support their arguments (smiling).

      It’s especially striking to realize that upwards of 90% of MI students attend public schools. That figure, of course, includes public school academies (charter schools) which are NOT fully public–they use public money but operate outside public norms (like elected school boards, and full transparency). Flint is #2 and Detroit is #3–nationally!– in the percentage (both over half) of their students who have been siphoned off by charter schools. That’s one signal that public education is being chipped away, although it doesn’t show up in MDE statistics.

      The definition of ‘proficiency’ varies, a lot, from state to state and standardized test to test–in fact, some states don’t use the word ‘proficiency’. Setting cut scores and describing student progress is a statistical muddle. I once attended a State Board of Education meeting where Bd members were trying to decide who was ‘advanced’ / ‘proficient’ / ‘satisfactory’ and ‘not yet satisfactory’. The scores to define each group kept shifting around, and Bd members kept saying things like ‘we need fewer people to be advanced, if we want scores to rise.’ This is not science–it never has been scientific and trustworthy. So–I’m very suspicious of a statement like ‘overall student outcomes are below 50% for proficiency.’ What does that mean, specifically?

      Comparing scores on the same test over several years (without using descriptive groupings, like ‘advanced’ or ‘proficient’) might give us some indication if we’re improving on the narrow competencies tests can measure. But we’ve never done that. The tests keep changing, and the cut scores keep changing and the descriptors of student achievement groupings keep changing. I agree that we’re probably not going in the right direction, but that has more to do with the constant chaos in public education in MI, and reductions in financing (another thing that’s hard to explain–but very real).

      The base foundation for per-pupil state funding is just over $8,000 per student in MI. Not sure where you got the number you mention, but there are several districts where the per-pupil expenditure is WAY over that, and when averaged, it makes it feels as if each student was worth between $9K and $10K–but that figure is misleading. It’s also low, compared to other states. New Jersey, for example, spends close to $22,000 per pupil, and New York a thousand more–almost three times what is spent on the average student in Michigan. This is complicated–each state has their own formula and means of dividing available tax monies, but MI is on the low end.

      Most people would agree with you that the purpose of schooling is to prepare students for citizenship, the world of work and further education, when appropriate. But we really haven’t been doing that. We’ve cut back on civics, history and social studies, and focused on easily testable skills and knowledge, rather than the application of what students know to real-life work and problems. We’ve made public education one big contest.

      Public education is central to making this a more equitable and progressive nation.

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  2. If “you get what you pay for” is true, and private and charter schools pay their teachers less (which is often the case)….

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  3. “What is the real mission of public education?”

    I explore that question in Ch. 1 “The Purpose of Public Education” in “Indidelity to Truth: Education Malpractice in American Public Education”. There are sources for that purpose-state’s constitutions. Since public education is mandated by all 50 state constitution’s I looked at them to find common ground. Twenty-five give a reason and/or reasons. I consolidated those reasons into one reason that, seems to me to hold true and be a good raison d’être:

    “The purpose of public education is to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.”

    Now, the other main purpose, not cited in as many constitutions as the individual benefit, is that of ensuring that a democratic state can continue existing through enlightened citizens. I contend that if the purpose above for the individual obtains then that secondary purpose will also obtain as an enlightened citizen would know that it is not in her/his best interests to live in an authoritarian state, a state of anarchy or a state where might makes right.

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    1. Hi Duane. Welcome to Teacher in a Strange Land. Thanks for a great comment.

      Your first summary reminds me of my graduate class in the Philosophy of Education, where we read about 15 books (some memorable, others not so much) and then wrote our own philosophies. These philosophies were centered on living our best lives–productive, curious, moral–for the most part. If there was a responsibility to the community, it was that we not be a burden to others.

      But when I think about the purpose of education now, I think about David Labaree’s summary of the three purposes of education: Public education in America was initially centered on democratic equality–going back to Horace Mann, the idea that everyone, no matter how humble his beginnings (note gender here) was entitled to a basic education that would inform his citizenship (as you mention, in your second example). In the 20th century, post-Industrial revolution (and after waves of immigration), the purpose of education began to morph, to include social efficiency–the skills and knowledge necessary to be productive, a contributor in the workplace.

      Nobody’s arguing about those–but it’s Labaree’s third purpose, social mobility, where we find ourselves today. Social mobility is accruing the right credentials to rise in society–better jobs, more goods and opportunities, more prestige. When I think about the student loan debt crisis, and all the states that ‘made the bar higher’ in the pointless quest to raise test scores–or all those articles that claim certain test scores or colleges give a student a multi-million dollar leg up in lifetime income–I think we can pin that on the relentless pursuit of social mobility.

      If I were to rewrite my Philosophy of Education again, forty years later, I would go back to democratic equality–the benefits of a liberal education to the citizenry.

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