A just society would distribute opportunity fairly and, in the case of K-12 education, give each child the chance to realize her or his promise. While our society has never fully realized this ideal, we have, historically, agreed on the goal. We have also assumed that there is a public purpose for public education—that our society benefits from the education of its citizens in myriad ways.
Education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87) Political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15) Chicago education professor Bill Ayers writes: “What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”
These writers define public education as essential to the public good, and they point to the moral obligation to provide opportunity for all, not just for some in a society that aspires to justice. These days we talk very little about the universal provision of public services as the foundation of opportunity. We placidly ignore the skewed provision of public goods based on vastly unequal local resources from place to place, refuse to find ways to fund the equalization of those services, and then suggest that if we give parents control through privatization and school choice, they will be able to finesse the system on their children’s behalf.
Two articles posted this past week explore the moral implications of vast inequality experienced by children in today’s America. Arthur Camins, in a column reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, explores the false promise of choice as a so-called solution to educational inequality. Camins contrasts a value system grounded in common purpose to a value system of individual initiative and competition. He critiques the result after describing the rationale for school choice: “that successful schools will win the competition for students and thrive, while others will wither and close. However, this strategy is in itself inequitable because the disruptive effect of school closings negatively impacts students in already unstable communities, but not those in stable middle class or wealthy communities… In doing so it shifts the improvement focus from a shared concern or common struggle about the community’s children to individual parents making self-interested selections for their own children… Self-concern is a rational moral choice only in the context of a society that refuses to systemically address inequity and only if everyone becomes convinced that collective action is a hopelessly naive moral and strategic principle.”
In Getting the Edge, Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines another moral issue in a society of exploding wealth inequality. He describes the benefits that accrue for the children of the wealthiest among us as private and public privilege add up in a society that manages, through over-reliance on local property taxes, to spend the most public dollars on the education of children who are already pampered. Some children end up with almost unimaginable privilege as their parents invest in foreign travel and posh summer camps even as children in poor communities are denied basics like small classes and libraries in their public schools.
Rev. Thomas writes: “Aside from the wisdom of treating some of our children like pampered thoroughbred race horses in the Ivy League sweepstakes, or of infiltrating every activity with the rhetoric of economic competition, all of this demonstrates the structural ways in which our society helps to protect the very affluent class from downward mobility while doing little to nothing to provide meaningful upward mobility for poor and near poor children.”
In the unequal world that Rev. Thomas describes, we must continue to ask whether school choice through privatization—the prescribed “solution” today to inequality in education across America’s big cities—can possibly address the deepest injustices. Privatization and school choice embody values of individualism, freedom, liberty, choice, innovation, and competition—very different principles from those embedded in universal public education.
Benjamin Barber sorts out these issues with precision in his reflection on privatization. It is a fascinating exercise to consider carefully Barber’s statement that follows in the context of one of today’s examples of a school system designed around choice—whether in Chicago, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, or Philadelphia:
“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…. 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….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
In the context of growing family wealth inequality, Rev. Thomas believes our best chance for justice in education is through the public schools that represent our society’s public obligation to our children: “Children don’t need to study marine biology in New Zealand or entrepreneurship on Wall Street in the summer to have hope. But they do need good schools; well paid, well trained, well supported career teachers; and supports for their families to be able to provide a safe and stable home life. Absent this, all the talk about equal opportunity for all our children is not only futile, but obscene.”