Universal Public Education and the Common Good

President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be our next U.S. Secretary of Education has been a wake up call.

You may disagree with some of the particulars raised by the Senators who have been debating the DeVos nomination, but the hearings have diminished talk about the smaller issues and highlighted one thing: our universal public education in the United States is a primary civic institution of great value.

In Tuesday’s hearing, when the Senators on the HELP Committee took a vote and decided to send the DeVos nomination on to the full Senate for consideration, just about everybody talked about the public outcry—the volume of phone calls, e-mails, unusual requests for meetings, crowds and rallies pushing the Senators to protect public education. Many Senators declared their insistence that our education secretary at least value the public schools, understand the terms of the debate that has been sweeping around public education now for two decades, and realize that the U.S. Department of Education’s fundamental mission is protecting the rights of children who have historically been marginalized. It became clear that the party loyalty of some of the Republicans on the committee was being tested by the outcry of their constituents, and it became clearer yesterday afternoon when Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski promised they will vote against the DeVos confirmation when the full Senate votes.

The federal policy debates about public schools over the past twenty years have been largely shaped by our society’s computerized capacity to produce and analyze huge data sets—the test scores produced by the mandates of No Child Left Behind—and a drive by many policy makers to increase schools’ accountability for the test scores of their students. Data have demonstrated that schools in poor communities, on average, do not “produce” the same kind of high test scores as the schools in very wealthy enclaves, and the Bush and Obama administrations have demanded a punitive accountability system to try to pressure schools quickly to raise test scores.  The accountability debate is unresolved.  It must remain among our society’s highest domestic priorities to find a way to support the communities, schools, and teachers where our nation’s poorest children are educated. But it is also true that in the midst of the raging  fight about accountability not enough of us have remembered to consider the role of a universal public school system itself for shaping a society. The prospect of an Education Secretary who fails to value public schools has reminded us that the presence of a widespread public system is important.

Here is some history, beginning with the point of view of Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz: “By the middle of the nineteenth century the United States had the most educated youth in the world. Mass elementary schooling had swept through much of America and came to many states even before it was fully funded by local governments. The citizens of other industrializing nations would have to wait another three to four decades to attain elementary school enrollment rates comparable to those in 1860 America… But just as Europe began to narrow the educational gap with America at the elementary school level, a second great educational transformation started to gather steam in the United States… The second educational transformation that catapulted the United States to another peak in mass education, and one that would last for much of the twentieth century, was known then and today as the ‘high school movement.’… The high school movement rapidly changed the education of American youth. The typical young, native-born American in 1900 had a common school education, about the equivalent of six to eight grades. But the average young person in 1940 was a high school graduate. Outside the South, the transition was more rapid: as early as 1930 the median youth in the New England states and parts of the West was a high school graduate.”  (The Race Between Education and Technology, pp. 163-164)

Goldin and Katz conclude: “The American system can be characterized… as open, forgiving, lacking in universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum. The European system, in contrast, was generally closed, unforgiving, with uniform standards, and an academic curriculum for some and an industrial one for others. One system was egalitarian; the other was elite.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 28)  “At the end of the twentieth century almost all nations have discovered what America knew at the beginning of the century. Human capital, embodied in one’s people, is the most fundamental part of the wealth of nations.” (The Race Between Education and Technology, p. 41)

One of the most graphic contemporary depictions by a writer of life with what Goldin and Katz call an elite rather then inclusive system of public schools is fictional—Elena Ferrante’s runaway best selling series of novels about mid-twentieth century Naples. The four novels trace the life trajectories of two Italian girls—the one “brilliant friend” whose parents won’t pay for the tutoring for the exam that would secure her admittance to an academic high school—and the other a diligent girl whose teachers push her and parents permit her to soar academically beyond the limits of the neighborhood. The lives of both women involve troubles and sorrow, but the novels clearly identify the role of educational opportunity and its absence in a society that does not provide universal education. One of the books is titled “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.”

Goldin and Katz, economists, write about public schools’ contribution to human capital and the wealth of nations. Others consider the importance of public education  more broadly.  Here is education historian David Tyack: “I believe that public schools represent a special kind of civic space that deserves to be supported by citizens whether they have children or not. The United States would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin. And one way to begin that impoverishment is to privatize the purposes of education. The size and inclusiveness of public education is staggering. Almost anywhere a school age child goes in the nation, she will find a public school she is entitled to attend. Almost one in four Americans work in schools either as students or staff. Schools are familiar to citizens as places to vote and to meet as well as places to educate children. Schools are more open to public participation in policy-making than are most other institutions, public or private… When local citizens deliberate about the kind of education they want for their children, they are in effect debating the futures they want… Democracy is about making wise collective choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self-rule than they are today.” (Seeking Common Ground, pp. 182-185)

How does privatization of education affect society?  Jonathan Kozol described what he imagines would be the consequences in a Boston Globe commentary last October, as voters in that state prepared to vote on a statewide ballot issue to remove a cap on the authorization of new charter schools. The measure failed overwhelmingly on election day, perhaps because many in Massachusetts agree with Kozol’s concerns: “Slice it any way you want. Argue, as we must, that every family ought to have the right to make whatever choice they like in the interests of their child, no matter what damage it may do to other people’s children. As an individual decision, it’s absolutely human; but setting up this kind of competition, in which parents with the greatest social capital are encouraged to abandon their most vulnerable neighbors, is rotten social policy. What this represents is a state supported shriveling of civic virtue, a narrowing of moral obligation to the smallest possible parameters. It isn’t good for Massachusetts, and it’s not good for democracy.”

In the United States, expanding opportunity for marginalized populations of students in our so-called universal education system has involved two centuries of political struggle —securing admittance and equal opportunity for girls, for American Indians, for African American children of former slaves, for immigrant students, and for disabled students—many of them formerly institutionalized. In the words of the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, “We’ve come too far to go back now.”

Our public schools are a reflection of the society in which they are set. They reflect our geographic and cultural regions and our society’s economic and racial segregation. While they cannot possibly be utopian institutions, public schools—universally available, publicly funded, amenable to public oversight through the democratic process—remain the best system for ensuring that our society can serve the needs of a broad range of students and communities and for protecting the human rights of our nation’s young people.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, has spent her life and her fortune pursuing one goal—to privatize the public schools. All Senate Democrats have pledged to vote against her confirmation, and yesterday afternoon, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski pledged to vote “no” as well.  Her confirmation would be defeated if one additional Republican Senator would vote “no.”  Please continue to call your Senators. Ask them to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation when the full Senate votes. Or if you prefer to write, you can do so on your Senators’ websites. Or the Network for Public Education has a new action alert letter ready for you to use.

3 thoughts on “Universal Public Education and the Common Good

  1. Jan,

    Hard to predict how the vote will go; however, one thing seems very clear… without your commitment and dedication to the cause of public education, it wouldn’t even be close. Thank you

  2. When I heard Sen. Murkowski tell the media she had received literally thousands of calls and letters in opposition to DeVos, I knew it was because of people like you, Diane Ravitch, and others who have kept this critical issue out in front of the public. Even if she is confirmed because of the V-P’s vote, hopefully she will have no credibility in the department and will be hamstringed by her own testimony and the exposure to the public by you and others who have dedicated their time and effort on behalf of preserving public education. Thank you, Jan.

  3. Pingback: 2017 Medley #4 – Live Long and Prosper

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