Protecting Public School

        October 2006

When my friends and colleagues get together to talk about our best work, I note that sometimes we compare it, with pride, to “public schools.” At other times I hear adults in charter schools let the public forget that they too are public schools. It is as though our work is not part of that public sector, because we’re different than “them”–being charters, pilots, or alternative schools. We’ve entered a period of history when the connotation of “public” has been allowed to be synonymous with bureaucratic and mediocre, only of use to those with no other choices. But, when we lose a sense that “we” not “they” are the public, we have undermined our society in dangerous ways.

Reformers who urge us to drop the pretense of a local connection between schools and their communities lead us into dangerous territory. We forget, for example, that over 90% of our funding comes from nonfederal sources, most of it very public indeed. And when we plead for public schools on behalf of the most “at risk” we, in turn, risk fragmenting support for the very notion of public schooling. This notion that public institutions are only for losers undermines democratic responsibility and community, that what benefits the least powerful is allied to what benefits the most powerful. We are in this together.

Reformers of all stripes sometimes forget that the genius of our democracy is in sustaining the tensions and balances between various sources of power—including the power of us “ordinary” people. Think about how, by ignoring this notion of the public, those closest to children, their teachers and parents, have less and less direct influence on our schools. Or how in the name of professionalism, expertise, and efficiency we have narrowed the public’s involvement with its schools. For example, when I was born there were 300,000 school boards–one in virtually every little community that housed a school. Today with far more schools serving vastly more children for far more years, we have less than 15,000 boards and the most have very little power. In some cases, as in New York City, there is no longer any lay board for over a million school children.

Expertise comes in many different forms. Democracy need not ignore the value of expertise, but it does on the long run need to balance the forms of expertise that rule our lives. Teachers have one form of expertise and parents have another. Local community leaders hold still other expertise—representing as they do the wider community; and the same for state legislatures, and federal authorities. The same for professional organizations representing teachers in general and math teachers in particular, and so on. But if we cut off all those at the bottom from the decisions that are most vital because we think them ignorant or foolish, we have undermined the very concept of democracy which rests on tolerating what appears often ignorant and foolish: the voice of “the people.”

That language of “for, by and of the people” may sound sentimental, but be wary when you are told that we cannot “compete” in the world unless we give up our commitment to democratically controlled public schools as mere wishful thinking. And be cautious when we are urged to “be realistic,” because the “special interests” of ordinary people are more dangerous (i.e. more ignorant) than those of powerful people. It’s even rather comforting to realize that at heart it’s keeping such wishful thinking well grounded and effective that schooling is all about. The purpose of any school reform is to insure that good public schooling happens not just for the children of the wealthiest, but for the children of the least powerful as well. To level the playing field when it comes to both “wishes” and “effectiveness” is at the core of what we ask for from democratic public schooling. While the struggle to level the playing field can’t only take place in our school houses, at the very least we need to be sure we’re not using our schools to head in the opposite direction!

© 2006 Deborah Meier

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