Skip to main content

Janresseger: Public Schools: Our Essential Democratic Institution

In their 1992 book, The Good Society, Robert Bellah and a team of sociologists and ethicists call readers to consider the meaning of the institutions that are the foundation of our society: “We form institutions and they form us every time we engage in a conversation that matters, and certainly every time we act as parent or child, student or teacher, citizen or official, in each case calling on models and metaphors for the rightness and wrongness of action. Institutions are not only constraining but also enabling. They are the substantial forms through which we understand our own identity and the identity of others as we seek cooperatively to achieve a decent society.” (The Good Society, p. 12)

For generations, public schooling has been our society’s largest and most widespread civic institution. Back in 1992 when The Good Society was published, Bellah and his colleagues could not have anticipated the widespread expansion of educational individualism in the form private school vouchers state governments are supporting today, but they did notice our society’s ethos of radical individualism as a threat to our essential institutions: “Freedom, for most Americans, is an essential ingredient to a definition of a good society, and one we affirm… But in the great society of today, freedom cannot mean simply getting away from other people. Freedom must exist within and be guaranteed by institutions, and must include the right to participate in the economic and political decisions that affect our lived idea of a good society.” (The Good Society, p. 9)

Most of us who oppose today’s explosion of bills across the states to establish or expand private school tuition vouchers are skilled enough to argue accurately about the practical detriments of private school tuition vouchers as they drive money out of states’ public school budgets.  We have learned that today in most states, the students taking the vouchers are already enrolled in a private school and only using the money to discount the tuition their parents are already paying. Researchers have also documented conclusively that on the whole, students lose ground academically when they leave public schools and carry a voucher to a private school. (Chris Lubienski, T. Jameson Brewer, and Joel Malin, “Bait and Switch,” The School Voucher Illusion, pp. 127-147), and ( Josh Cowen.) We know that vouchers divert tax dollars away from small towns and rural areas where the population is too small to support any private schools. And we know that many privatized schools fail to provide programming for English learners and special needs students, leaving behind the most expensive students to educate in the public schools.

We struggle, however, to reflect upon and name the ways rapid school privatization threatens the values embedded in the institution of public schooling—perhaps our society’s greatest symbol of the historical commitment to our collective responsibility for forming the citizens of our democratic society.  Public schools are designed to serve all children. They are available everywhere a family might live and they are required to protect, by law, every child’s civil rights.

Public schools are, however, human institutions; they cannot perfectly embody these principles. Public schools in too many places also represent our society’s racial segregation, economic inequality, and racism and white privilege. Can school privatization in any way remedy these problems, or will remedying injustice be possible only by improving the public schools.

Public Schools Are Publicly Accountable Institutions

Public schools are accountable to each state’s constitution and federal and state laws. Public schools are also accountable to their democratically elected and transparently operated local school boards.  Private schools are not publicly accountable.  Their boards meet privately, and their sources of funding and expenditures are not publicly reported.  Private schools are not required to hire certified and well-qualified teachers.

Can a Marketplace of Private Schools Accepting Vouchers Protect Students’ Civil Rights?

Private schools cannot be counted on to protect students’ civil rights (Jongyeon Ee, Gary Orfield, Jennifer Teitell, “Private-Sector Schools: Limited Scope and Stratification, The School Voucher Illusion, pp. 241-272). Private schools are always selective. They can select the students they prefer and push out students whose behavior or academic problems challenge staff. Many of the schools created as segregation academies continue to discriminate by race as do many private schools created more recently. Private schools can keep out students whose sexual orientation or gender identity violates the school’s religious preference. Unlike public schools which are required by the Individuals with Disability Education Act to provide services that accommodate the needs of each child, private schools can choose whether to provide appropriate programs and specially trained teachers.  Sometimes the schools promise special services but fail to provide qualified staff.

An education marketplace is designed to serve the needs of the mass of individual tastes but not to protect the collective needs of our society. The late political theorist Benjamin Barber best distinguishes the needs of the public from what can be accomplished in an education marketplace: “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

Barber concludes: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Public Schools Institutionalize the Principle of Welcoming Every Child and Forming the Citizens of Our Democracy

At the recent Network for Public Education Conference, Keynoter Julian Vasquez Heilig, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Western Michigan University declared, “Equity, inclusivity and democracy are what our public schools represent.”  The American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten reminded a luncheon plenary: “Public school is the place where we do pluralism.” Walter Feinberg, a philosopher of education, reminds us that our pluralistic society requires students to understand and respect the rights of their peers who represent different cultures. The only schools that can foster such respect are schools that bring together students from across the barriers posed by economics, race, ethnicity and religion: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories.’” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, p. 232) (emphasis in the original)

Public Schools Define and Form the Public

In his recent 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)

Perhaps the most powerful statement of this principle is articulated by William Ayers, retired professor of education at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle, in last year’s Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy: “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all…  Schools don’t exist outside of history or culture: they are, rather, at the heart of each. Schools serve societies; societies shape schools. Schools, then, are both mirror and window—they tell us who we are and who we want to become, and they show us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is venal.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315)


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

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—working ...