Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?
In the days leading up to and after Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as secretary of education, a hashtag spread across Twitter: #publicschoolproud. Parents and teachers tweeted photos of their kids studying, performing, eating lunch together. People of all races tweeted about how public schools changed them, saved them, helped them succeed. The hashtag and storytelling was a rebuttal to DeVos, who called traditional public schools a “dead end” and who bankrolled efforts to pass reforms in Michigan, her home state, that would funnel public funds in the form of vouchers into religious and privately operated schools and encouraged the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. The tweets railed against DeVos’s labeling of public schools as an industry that needed to adopt the free-market principles of competition and choice. #Publicschoolproud was seen as an effort to show that public schools still mattered.
But the enthusiastic defense obscured a larger truth: We began moving away from the “public” in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places. Parents have pushed for school-choice policies that encourage shopping for public schools that they hope will give their children an advantage and for the expansion of charter schools that are run by private organizations with public funds. Large numbers of public schools have selective admissions policies that keep most kids out. And parents pay top dollar to buy into neighborhoods zoned to “good” public schools that can be as exclusive as private ones. The glaring reality is, whether we are talking about schools or other institutions, it seems as if we have forgotten what “public” really means.
The word derives from the Latin word publicus, meaning “of the people.” This concept — that the government belongs to the people and the government should provide for the good of the people — was foundational to the world’s nascent democracies. Where once citizens paid taxes to the monarchy in the hope that it would serve the public too, in democracies they paid taxes directly for infrastructure and institutions that benefited society as a whole. The tax dollars of ancient Athenians and Romans built roads and aqueducts, but they also provided free meals to widows whose husbands died in war. “Public” stood not just for how something was financed — with the tax dollars of citizens — but for a communal ownership of institutions and for a society that privileged the common good over individual advancement.
Early on, it was this investment in public institutions that set America apart from other countries. Public hospitals ensured that even the indigent received good medical care — health problems for some could turn into epidemics for us all. Public parks gave access to the great outdoors not just to the wealthy who could retreat to their country estates but to the masses in the nation’s cities. Every state invested in public universities. Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools? - The New York Times: