Teacher in a Strange Land: 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.
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.
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.”
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