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Why We Need Public Schools!

Why do we have public schools? Would we be better off, as certain reformers now think, if everyone had school choice and went to a charter or used a voucher to go to a private or religious school?

Do we need public schools?

I asked Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York, how she would answer these questions.

How would you answer?

This is what Carol wrote:

“When I think of the purpose of public schooling I always think of Dewey’s famous phrase that is stenciled into the entrance wall of Teacher’s College 'Schools are the fundamental method of social progress and reform' (Dewey,1897). I believe that these words are as true today as when they were first included in John Dewey’s 'Pedagogic Creed' .

“There is a compact that exists between a community and its public school. It is a promise that the school will teach every child that passes through its doors—poor children, affluent children, children with disabilities and children who show great academic promise. The common public school is required to teach the easy to teach and the difficult to teach. The common public school is there for the student with strong parent advocates and for the child who is, for all practical purposes, alone.

“Most important of all, it is where such children meet and sit side by side in classrooms, on bleachers and in cafeterias. They learn from each other as surely as they learn from their teacher. That social learning is also what gives rise to the promise of social progress and social reform.

“I attended a private high school where I met children who looked like me, thought like me and prayed liked me. It was a good school, but I did not have as rich an experience as the public school students who attend my school. There were no students with substantial learning disabilities in my high school. It was a test-in school so no one struggled with academics. Only two of the students who attended were Black, and none of the students were poor. There was learning that I missed during my teenage years. I am glad we sent our daughters to public school.

“Charters and privates are not designed to serve all students—they are designed to serve students who are more like each other than not. Although there may be some diversity, those who are truly different either never apply, are never accepted or are counseled out. . One has to only look at New York City Schools, which are becoming more segregated and stratified by income than ever before, to understand the outcome of charters, selection policies and choice.

“We can take the easy road that leads to improvement for some kids at the expense of others, or the more difficult road that will improve education for all kids. Without vibrant, supported public schools, the second option does not have a chance.”


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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...