National Public Education
28Jun/110

Hidden in Plain Sight

When I first started teaching in New York City, in the early 90’s, I worked at what used to be Andrew Jackson High School in Jamaica, Queens.  The school had been converted to a collection of magnet schools that summer, but there were still remnants of the old arrangement around, including the bulletin boards put up by the last of the Jackson students.   (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a Jackson graduate—her name was still engraved on the permanent honor role in the front hall.)

One of these bulletin boards was about a letter-writing project in which the students had proposed that we adopt a national education system.  I forget the details, but I think they had written to various senators and congressmen to argue the case for converting to a fully national school system.  They simply pointed out that a federal system would work better than the current state one.

In the years that followed I have often thought of those students and their project.   In a way, what I am doing now on this blog is a continuation of their work.  I just want to point out, perhaps naively, that a national school system would work well, and leave it at that.  Like those kids, I want to focus on the simple question of how to make the schools better.  If that is the only question under discussion, one has to eventually get to the topic of national public education.

A fully national school system, with the educational tax money that we currently send to the states going instead to the federal government, (but the local school district staying the same) is not a topic that many take seriously.  I suppose everyone thinks that it would be too difficult to make such a fundamental change, and too scary.  That fact alone, however, does not make it any less logical.  No one can deny that trying to improve all the schools in this country with 50 different, autonomous, groups in charge is not the best arrangement.  Just on the face of it, without going into all the complex arguments for state or national control, one can see that having 50 leaders of school reform will tend to bring about the kind of permanent mediocrity that we have come to know so well.  It is not that our state system cannot work; it is that it can never work well.

I realize that there are many people out there who are at best lukewarm on the topic of improving public education.  These are not my audience.  But there are also many who truly believe that public education is the best way to educate our children, and are seriously searching for ways to improve it.  To these I want to suggest that one answer has been there all along, hidden in plain sight: a national school system.  It is time that we started talking about it.