National Public Education
16Sep/170

“The War on Public Schools”


Erika Christakis has written a good piece in this month’s (October, 2017) Atlantic magazine on how public education helps to bring us all together in a stable, workable, democracy.  She points out that what we need is more civics education, more emphasis on the social, cooperative, values taught in school, and a realization that the “privatization” of the schools will destroy something valuable.  All this is great, but, of course, I also wish she had pursued some of her points more thoroughly.

There is much to like; for one, simply the term “public” in the title.  That, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.  Only a few years ago this very same magazine did a large survey on “American Education.”  As I wrote then, this is not the problem.  We already know how to “educate” people quite well.  What we don’t know how to do is run a public program that does this well.  The main problem is the “public” part of public education.

Secondly, she brings up the topic of the “public benefit” from public education.  Finally someone is talking about this.  She points out that one of the key “stakeholders” in public education is the public itself, i.e. the nation as a whole, and that the emphasis on individual rights and choices ignores the importance of this aspect of the public schools.

She also reminds us that America has never been at the top of the world in terms of student achievement.  We have been the best at getting more of our population into school, but we have never been the best academically.  That, too, is an important point to remember, since it implies that if we want to get to that high level now, we probably need to make some major changes in the entire program.  Simply going back to what we have always done will not get us to the top academically.  We need to do something new. (Of course, this is exactly why people argue that we need to privatize the schools; what I would like to point out is that we could also simply build a new, and better, public school system, one that, for example, had a more centralized structure.)

And finally, and best of all, she explains how illogical it is to want to have a “choice” in how we educate our children in a public school system.  She points out that of course everyone likes this idea of having more control over their child’s schooling, but that the whole idea really doesn’t make sense.  It would be like choosing to get, as she says, a free gym membership for oneself by using funds allocated for better parks; getting an essentially private benefit from something that was supposed to be for the public, for everyone.

This is a great argument.  It brings out exactly the central problem with the whole privatization movement; that these plans are a misuse of the intent of the people who are actually funding these schemes, the public taxpayers.  In her example, these people paid for a park, not gym memberships.  A public program is, by definition, for everyone, so it will always be more or less uniform for all.  In such a system, "choice" doesn't make sense.

My only problem with Ms Christakis is that she doesn’t stress this point enough.  She turns away from it in the next sentence, saying that she doesn’t want to discuss school choice, since, as she says, the evidence for these schemes is “mixed.”  By this I gather she means that some charter and voucher programs do produce better results than the traditional schools.

But this is the same mistake everyone makes about the issue of charter schools and the like.  The point is not whether they are better than the traditional schools or not. There’s a deeper problem. The whole concept is wrong; it’s a misuse of public funds.  Looking at whether charter schools do a good job would be like, in Ms Christakis’ example, looking at whether the gym memberships were “better” for us than the park program.  You see, that’s not the point.  Even if the gym memberships were better, that would not negate the central problem with such a scheme; it would still be wrong to use public funds for a private benefit.

So, she is well on her way to making a valuable contribution to the debate on public education, but still has a way to go.  She sees the outlines of the central problems, but is not quite ready to address these core issues yet, or, perhaps, is not quite ready to try to get such controversial issues into print.  What is great, though, is that she brings up the “public” nature of the public school problem, for that is the key to its eventual solution.

 

Peter Dodington

September 16, 2017