The late political theorist Benjamin Barber believed that the American system of public schools—schools located in every community, schools accessible to all, schools paid for by the public—are the heart of our U.S. democracy. And he worried that school privatization and consumerist school choice threaten to fragment our society:
“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)
Tom Ultican is retired from a career teaching mathematics and physics at the public Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California. A prolific California teacher-blogger, Ultican recently described what he learned about the important role of public schools in the small Idaho town where he grew up. The public schools were the engine of educational opportunity, but also the center of the community itself. Ultican lived on a ranch outside the town of Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho, where his mother taught school: “It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path: if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was that they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future… Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year-olds did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.” Additionally Ultican recognizes: “The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school-based relationships.”
Ultican quotes John Adams in 1785 articulating the principles the Founders enacted that year in the first of the Northwest Ordinances, which established the blueprint for U.S. public schooling: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it not founded by a charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the people themselves.”
In his important book published last fall, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional scholar, Derek Black looks back not only at the founding of U.S. public education but also at the major threats to the institution of public schooling throughout our history—the collapse of universal access and school funding in the South after Reconstruction, the bigotry of Jim Crow, the long fight leading to Brown v. Board of Education, and the legal and legislative backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.
Black brings his history up to date and concludes that political forces today threaten the very idea of public schooling as seriously as in any of these troubled eras in our history: “This book has told the story of a nation founded on the idea of a self-governing citizenry, bound together and prepared by public education. The idea is so central that public education became a right and delivering it the constitutional duty of states… The nation, of course, had major setbacks—economic and racial—but those setbacks even when they aimed to, never overcame the fundamental commitment to public education. Education policies of the last decade, however, do not fit well within the nation’s historical arc. The setbacks of the last decade are, in many respects, attempts to go straight at public education itself as the problem. Many of today’s education policies and fads are premised on—and sometimes explicitly claim—that public education is fundamentally flawed and government ought to scrap it for something else. At the very least, government ought not be the primary provider of education. This idea permeates states’ decade-long disinvestment (since the 2008 Recession) in public education and major new investment in private alternatives. Public education cuts initially looked like a response to the recession…. In retrospect, the cuts look sinister. They came while states exponentially grew charters and vouchers—and remained in place well after the recession passed and state revenues were booming. To add insult to injury, various legislative mechanisms driving charter and voucher growth come at the direct expense of public schools. The contrasting reality of public schools and their private alternatives looks like a legislative preference for private school choice over public school guarantees.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 225-226)
Like Tom Ultican, U.S. Senator Jon Tester was educated in a small western town, Big Sandy, Montana (population 560), where he still farms today. Not only did Tester attend Big Sandy’s public schools, but he also once taught music at F. E. Miley Elementary School and served for nine years on Big Sandy’s board of education before becoming a Montana state senator and then a U.S. Senator. Tester actively worries about the impact school privatization could have on the public schools in small rural communities like Big Sandy: “I am going to tell you what happens in a rural state like mine with privatization. My school system in my hometown of Big Sandy has about 175 kids. That is not an exception for Montana; there are a lot of schools that have 175 kids or fewer. By the way, that is not high school; that’s K through twelve. Let’s say that for whatever reason, somebody wants to set up a charter school a few miles down the road and suck a few kids out of Big Sandy, and maybe suck a few kids out of the Fort Benton school system, and a few more out of the Chester system. Pretty soon, they have their little charter school, and there is less money to teach the kids who are left in those public schools. What do you think is going to happen to those kids who are left there? That is going to take away from our public education system. Ultimately it will cause those schools to close, because the money that funds our education is at a bare minimum right now.” (Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, pp. 279-280)
What makes the preservation of public education so important? Here is how Derek Black concludes his history of American public education and what he understands as today’s threat: “Our public education system, since its beginning, has aimed to bring disparate groups together. Public schools were to be the laboratory and proving grounds where society takes its first steps toward a working democracy that will include all… The framework is one where we understand public education as a constitutional right. This means public education is the state’s absolute and foremost duty. This means the state must help students, teachers, and districts overcome obstacles, not blame them when they don’t. This means the state must fully fund schools and reform policies unrelated to money when they impede adequate and equal opportunity. This means the state cannot manipulate educational opportunity by geography, race, poverty… This means the state cannot favor alternatives to public education over public education itself. This means the state must honor the constitution over its own ideologies and bias. This, finally, means that public education must be in service of our overall constitutional democracy. Every education policy we face must be filtered through these principles.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)