This week is American Education Week and next week will be Thanksgiving. In this context, I have been thinking about the challenge of valuing an institution we tend to overlook. Here are a few of my thoughts and some from wiser thinkers who have considered the importance of our nation’s system of public schooling.
This blog will take the holiday week off. Look for a new post on November 29.
Like all human institutions, public education is imperfect. As a primary civic institution, our public school system reflects all the sins and problems of our society. Nevertheless, public schools—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—are essential for ensuring that over 50 million children and adolescents are served. Public schools are the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular student and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all students. Our society has improved the fairness of our system of public education over the generations by passing laws to protect the rights and serve the needs of previously marginalized African American, Native American, disabled, immigrant, English Language Learner, and LGBTQ children. We need to keep on making public schools safer and more authentically welcoming for every student, but at the same time, we should be grateful that our ancestors established a school system that aspires to our best civic values.
The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber summarizes some of the things we forget to value but count on nonetheless: “In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, (and) special education centers… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.) It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred. That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)
Appreciating Teachers in these Fraught Times
This year we especially need to celebrate school teachers. They deserve extra respect and gratitude in this year when COVID-19 is still disrupting school—as students and teachers continue to test positive for the pandemic and classes are quarantined for periods of time; as teachers must fill in for others who get sick in addition to managing their own classes because there is a shortage of available substitutes; and as children struggle to adjust a regular schedule after a year of the utter disruption of normal schooling. Exhausted teachers are working to help students catch up academically and readjust socially to institutional routines and being with each other. As we watch all the frenzied press about parents protesting about mask requirements during COVID and parents distrusting the teaching of American history, we ought to remember that classroom teachers have become an easy target. Teachers deserve special thanks and appreciation as another difficult COVID-19 school year is now underway.
We especially need to celebrate the fact that so many teachers keep on keeping on day after day amidst these very difficult circumstances. While there are shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers and teachers’ aides, for FiveThirtyEight, Rebecca Klein reports that the number of teachers resigning their positions in frustration has been less than alarming reports originally projected: “By many accounts, teachers have been particularly unhappy and stressed out about their jobs since the pandemic hit, first struggling to adjust to difficult remote-learning requirements and then returning to sometimes unsafe working environments. A nationally representative survey of teachers by RAND Education and Labor in late January and early February found that educators were feeling depressed and burned out… Yet the data on teacher employment shows a system that is stretched, not shattered. In an EdWeek Research Center report released in October, a significant number of district leaders and principals surveyed—a little less than half—said that their district had struggled to hire a sufficient number of full-time teachers. This number paled in comparison, though, with the nearly 80 percent of school leaders who said they were struggling to find substitute teachers, the nearly 70 percent who said they were struggling to find bus drivers and the 55 percent who said they were struggling to find paraprofessionals.”
Klein gives considerable credit to teachers unions for supporting teachers through this very difficult period: “Indeed, union representation, and the perks that come along with it, is something that other sectors facing massive shortages of female workers, like service and hospitality industries don’t necessarily receive. As of 2017, about 70 percent of teachers participated in a union or professional association, according to federal data. By comparison, the same is true for only about 17 percent of nurses, another predominantly female workforce.”
Klein quotes Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers: “Every place I went, yes, there’s trepidation, a lot of agita over the effects of COVID, but there’s real joy of people being back in school with their kids… Female professions are undervalued by society, and I think that’s part of the reason teachers are more densely organized than almost any other worker in America right now.”
Appreciating Public Institutions Against the Threat of School Privatization
The purveyors of school privatization at public expense—as an alternative to traditional public schools—are a persistent threat to our universal system of public schooling. Well-organized and determined advocates for school privatization are taking advantage of all the pandemic-related frustrations to peddle their wares. Glitzy ads for K-12 Inc, the for-profit online school, pop up on the cable news networks and despite information to the contrary, charter schools brag to parents that their schools are less disrupted by COVID. Ohio’s new state budget expands plain old vouchers and introduces education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers. Charter schools are being introduced in West Virginia. What are the reasons to appreciate our public system instead?
Privatized educational alternatives like charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition not only extract public funds needed in the public school system to serve 50 million American children, but also undermine our rights as citizens and our children’s rights. The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, conceptualizes what we all lose when we privatize an essential public institution like education. The losers are always the most vulnerable, those who lack power and money:
“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)
Appreciating Learning in a Public School Setting
In our era when when extremists are disrupting too many local school board meetings and far-right legislators armed with ALEC model bills for vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and tuition tax credit vouchers are trying to expand tax supported school privatization in many places, we can consider the words of the late Mike Rose. Rose spent a lifetime celebrating public education, but he believed its promise must be perpetually expanded:
“Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose…. There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.”
Reengaging may begin with taking the time to consider and appreciate what happens in our public schools. Rose continues: “One tangible resource for such a revitalization comes for me out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life…. This sense of the possible emerges when a child learns to take another child seriously, learns to think something through with other children, learns about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It comes when, over time, a child arrives at an understanding of numbers, or acquires skill in rendering an idea in written language… The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us…. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry. As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.” (Why School?, pp 203-207)