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Janresseger: Ideologues Beat Up on Public Schools As Many Forget About the Essential Role of These Public Institutions and Our Obligation to Support Them

There is evidence that the ideological attack by enemies of public education is paying off for them, but not for the 50 million students enrolled in America’s public schools.

Last week, Gallup announced: “American’s confidence in U.S. public schools remains low, with 28% saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution, similar to 32% last year. Both figures are down from 41% in 2020, reflecting a brief surge in the early months of the pandemic after registering 29% in 2019… Republicans’ confidence has… plunged, while independents’ has slipped and Democrats’ has remained near their pandemic high… Half of Republicans now have little to no faith in schools.”  Gallup’s data shows the ups and downs during COVID-19 of Republicans’, Independents’ and Democrats’ responses to public schools’ handling of the pandemic’s disruption.  Gallup adds: “Debate has also erupted at the national and local levels over school curricula touching on racism, gender theory and sexual orientation.”

In the past couple of weeks the attacks on public education have continued. We’ve been treated to the story of Larry Arnn announcing that teachers “are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country” and proclaiming that “anyone can teach.” Arnn is the president of Michigan’s extremely conservative, Christian, Hillsdale College, which has  launched a chain of classical charter schools across several states and proposed sponsoring at least 50 new schools in Tennessee.

The NY Times also profiled Ian Underwood, a “free stater,” who moved to New Hampshire—to the village of Croydon—as an anti-tax “liberty activist.” Posing this question—“Why is that guy paying for that guy’s kids to be educated?”—Underwood spoke at a town meeting and introduced a motion to cut the town’s public school budget in half—to a total of $800,000 per year.  According to the NY Times report, “Underwood asserted that sports, music instruction and other typical school activities were not necessary to participate intelligently in a free government, and that using taxes to pay for them ‘crosses the boundary between public benefit and private charity.'” Fortunately in Croydon, other citizens rose up against Ian Underwood and in favor of the public schools that serve the town’s children.

One detail in Gallup’s new report caught my eye: “While Republicans express low confidence in U.S. public schools, education is not on their minds.  When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today—only 1% of Republicans in June named education in answer to this open-ended question. Thus, it remains to be seen if concerns about education spur Republicans to the polls in November—or if other issues, from inflation to abortion to guns, are more prominent in influencing whether and how people vote.”

The late Mike Rose, author and professor of education, worried that people are not paying enough attention to what teachers do and what their public schools accomplish: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.” (Why School? p. 203)

In a wonderful essay published posthumously, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” Rose explores dimensions of public schooling that ideologues ignore and many of us forget to consider: “Public schools are governmental and legal institutions and therefore originate in legislation and foundational documents… All institutions are created for a reason, have a purpose, are goal driven… Equally important as the content of curriculum are the underlying institutional assumptions about ability, knowledge, and the social order… Public schools are physical structures. Each has an address, sits on a parcel of land with geographical coordinates… By virtue of its location in a community, the school is embedded in the social and economic dynamics of that community… The school is a multidimensional social system rich in human interaction… With the increasing application of technocratic frameworks to social and institutional life, it becomes feasible to view schools as quantifiable systems, represented by numbers, tallies, metrics. Some school phenomena lend themselves to counting, though counting alone won’t capture their meaning… And schools can be thought of as part of the social fabric of a community, serving civic and social needs: providing venues for public meetings and political debate, polls, festivities, and during crises shelters, distribution hubs, sites of comfort.” “Each of the frameworks reveals certain political, economic, or sociological-organizational aspects of the rise of comprehensive schooling while downplaying or missing others,” explains Rose. “It might not be possible to consider all of these perspectives when making major policy decisions about a school, but involving multiple perspectives should be the goal. (Mike Rose, “Reflections on the Public School and the Social Fabric,” in David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, editors, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, Teachers College Press, 2022)

Today’s ideologues and too many of the rest of us also happily discount important questions of political philosophy which have traditionally shaped Americans’ assumptions about public education. Worried about these philosophical questions, The New Republic‘s editor, Michael Tomasky reproaches New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood for forgetting about the principle of public responsibility: “In the U.S., of course, public education is mostly funded by property taxes and financed by local governments.  There are problems with this, as there are with any system invented by imperfect human beings, the main one being that rich districts have a lot more money and thus much better schools; but even still, the good part is that we as a society accept the idea that we all have to contribute. It does not matter whether you have children in the schools…. This is a core principle of civilized society. We all contribute to certain activities that have clear universal social benefit… The question of political philosophy is this: What is the common good—what must it include, and what is each citizen’s responsibility toward securing it? We decided in the U.S. a little more than a century ago that universal public education, free to every child and paid for by all of us, was central to any definition of a common good.”

Today many of us operate as consumers and forget about the responsibilities expected of citizens. The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber worries: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

The strategies of the anti-government folks and other school privatizers may differ, but they are all a threat to the principle and operation of public schooling. Croydon, New Hampshire’s Ian Underwood wants to cut taxes and government, while most privatizers advocate for privately operated schools at public expense. What the promoters of education savings account vouchers advocate, for example, is giving every child who opts out of public school a publicly funded credit card voucher to pay for private school or home schooling or whatever kind of education the parents choose. The problem is that the money for the education savings account credit cards inevitably comes out of the state’s public school budget and reduces programming in the public schools likely to remain the primary education provider serving the majority of students and adolescents.

Barber explores how marketplace school choice undermines educational opportunity: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

In his new book, The Privatization of Everything, Donald Cohen, the executive director of In the Public Interest, challenges us to consider and protect the fragile principle of public responsibility: “In a democracy, we get to decide that there should be no exclusions—no winners or losers—when it comes to education (or clean water, or a fair trial, or a vaccine) even if it’s possible to do so. We decide there are things we should do together. We give special treatment to these goods because we realize that they benefit everyone in the course of benefiting each one—and conversely, that excluding some hurts us all. That starts with asserting public control over our fundamental public goods. We lift these goods out of the market or restrict what the market can do, taking concrete steps to make sure that no one is excluded and that there is enough to go around…. What’s important is that public goods exist only insofar as we, the voters and the people, create them. That’s how democracy should and often does work. But it really works only if we can hold on to an idea of the common good. Is it good for individuals and the whole?” (The Privatization of Everything, pp. 7-8)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—wo...