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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Public Education: Can We Keep It?

The public school is on trial, and it may not survive. We must confront head-on the challenges that seek to destroy a concept at the core of our common national purpose.

How did we come to this juncture in America when the ideals of a universal free education are expressed in market terms: choice, competition, outcomes, vouchers, profits, and consumerism? How did we come to define the national purposes of education, not on the basis of what is best for the collective will or community, but on what is best for “me” or “my” child? How did we come to expect that we could prepare all the children of our nation for the 21st century without a strong public educational system?

Public Education on Trial

The concept of public education is on national trial. It is being entangled by the ferment of a people undergoing a profound economic, social, and political transformation. It is being exploited by interests that would like to train our children to be customers of goods rather than good citizens.
The concept is also at the core of our common national purpose, not solely with regard to public education, but with regard to the whole of our public life. In many communities and states, the core is holding—but it is being tested. In other places, the core precepts of a universal education and the public weal are coming apart with disunifying force.
At the national level, the noble ideals of an educated populace—embodied in equal educational opportunity for all children, a universal free education, public control of public schools, a common school experience, and the link between national purpose and the success of our children—are being diminished by a diet of public money for private schools and federal testing for public schools. Instead of the whole determining what is in the best interests of all, individuals will be determining what's in their own self-interests, even if that action may be exclusionary, discriminatory, or even uninformed.

The Origin of the Public School

The common school was born out of a republican principle that “the education of the whole becomes the first interest of all” (Davis 1947). In the 1830s private schools for children whose parents could pay tuition flourished throughout the Northeast. Children of the wealthy attended private “dame schools” to avoid associating with the poor. In 1837, the Connecticut educational leader Henry Barnard estimated that 10,000 wealthy children attended private schools at an expense greater than all the funds appropriated for the other 70,000 children of the state (Burns 1982, pp. 504–505).
Reformers hoped to bring every child into school through the establishment of the “free school,” supported by taxes and state grants—free so that no child would be identified as pauper, and free so that the rich would not object to the mixed economic classes. The rich thought public schools were acceptable as long as everyone paid taxes to support them. The common school movement really caught on when educator-lawyer-legislator Horace Mann convinced manufacturers that the common school was in their best interest. “Education is a market value which may be turned into a pecuniary account,” contended Mann. “It may be minted and will yield a larger amount of suitable coin than common bullion” (Burns 1982, p. 505).
The basic reason that the founders of this Republic turned to the idea of public education was to build common commitments to their new democratic political communities. Let me repeat this point. The prime purpose for a public rather than a private education was political: to prepare the young for their new role as self-governing citizens rather than as subjects bound to an alien sovereign or as private persons loyal primarily to their families, neighborhoods, churches, localities, or ethnic traditions.
In its origins, public education was not intended to give parents more control over their children's education, not to promote the individual needs and interests of children, not to prepare for a better job, not to get into college. It was through the hope that public schools would surmount the divisiveness of the many segments in American society, while, at the same time, honoring pluralistic differences, that the idea of a common school took root and flourished. It came to be generally accepted that only a public school system common to all segments of society under public control could achieve the ideals of common civic community.
Now there have always been critics of the public schools. From the beginning, political, religious, educational, and intellectual leaders who brought about the transformation of the common school had diverse goals. Thus, a conflict of purpose centrally affected the formative period of education and has affected it ever since. Lawrence Cremin calls popular education as radical an ideal as Americans have embraced, and it is by its very nature fraught with difficulty (1989, p. vii). Yet the movement toward public education has accomplished much.

Accomplishments of Public Schools

The litany of woe about public schools, without recognition of how far we have come, makes me think that I have been living on another planet all of these years.
Our schools have produced much of what we, the public and parents, have expected them to. We expect the schools to admit all who come to their doors, and they do. We expect the schools to provide learning experiences for the severely and profoundly handicapped and provide an equal educational opportunity no matter what a child's language proficiency, no matter what the parents income, no matter what their achievement level—and they do.
Never in his wildest dreams would Horace Mann have imagined the social conditions under which schools would have to operate: the condition of the family, the rise of child abuse, the spread of addictive drugs to young children. Neither could Mann have imagined the powerful effect of television—robbing as many as six hours a day from a child's life.
We have asked our schools to provide individualized instruction, basic education, mastery education, and open education. And wave upon wave, the schools have responded. Over the years, the public schools have produced an unequaled diversification of programs and curriculums.
But this is not to ignore that there is much yet to be accomplished. In fact, discontent about the public schools is more vigorous and pervasive than in the past (Cremin 1989, pp. 6–7). The current recession, a population anxious about its place in the world, new world enthusiasm for private enterprise, an increasing aging population, a growing population of minority and poor children, and more vociferous moves to destroy public education—all present challenges that must be confronted head-on.
The criticism of public schools, however, has often been flawed because it fails to consider the extraordinary complexity of education and the difficulty in reaching a public consensus on what exactly a “good school” is. Frequently, schools are judged on the narrow results of standardized test scores, which are imperfect at best. The good school, argues Sarah Lightfoot, is good in its context (1985, p. 9). It responds to the larger social and behavioral needs of the people who use that school. It recognizes the teacher who creates a before- and after-school program, who spends extra time with students who require individual attention, who conducts home visitations, and who mentors other teachers in sound professional practices.

The Challenge for Public Schools

Today the most critical challenge facing public schools and their advocates is to assure that every child receives an excellent education while the school deals with the extraordinary diversity of America's young people. In the meantime, we must challenge the often portrayed image of the public schools as flawed compared with the idealized vision of a publicly funded private school. Changing national demographics, low public school test scores, tremendous social as well as academic burdens placed on the public schools—with the resulting stigma that the public schools are in decline—are notions frequently exploited by well-organized, well-moneyed national networks that wish to divert public money for private purposes. What are the obstacles we face? Consider the facts.
There is increasing support for federal funding for nonpublic schools in the areas of vouchers and research among those who would like to redefine public schools to include “any schools that serve the public” including nonpublic schools. Thirty-one states propose various forms of funding for nonpublic schools including tuition tax credits, vouchers, or “charter schools.” After intense opposition by pro-public schools advocates, California's voucher proposal did not gain sufficient signatures to be put on the fall ballot. However, in Colorado, we weren't so fortunate. Canvassers there were paid a buck-fifty per signature to get signatures on the ballot by a California-based pro-voucher group. In March, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled as constitutional the Milwaukee demonstration voucher program, which provided up to $2,500 in Milwaukee school district state aid to attend private schools. That same month, the Iowa State Supreme Court refused to decide on a state tuition tax credit and voucher program for nonpublic schools, thereby letting stand the lower court ruling that private school aid is constitutional.
Pushing for nonpublic school aid are organizations such as the Heartland Institute, which has distributed a slick binder of articles on private school choice to all state legislatures. Most of the articles offer how-to advice, including model state legislation. In “The Case for Voluntary Funding of Education,” Myron Lieberman lays out reasons for ending all government financing of education, “either directly,” as the government currently does, or “indirectly,” through what Lieberman calls “incremental load shedding.”
Through such a process, the government would gradually put public education functions into private hands so that parents come to bear the full brunt of services. Parents would think that “load shedding” occurred for budgetary reasons—first drivers' education would go, then athletic programs, than foreign language, than art programs. According to Lieberman, this could be done quietly, without debate, no complicated legislation, no newspaper publicity. He says that this would be far more effective than vouchers (Bast and Bast 1991).
In another venture, marketeers are taking advantage of public schools for their own private purposes. Take, for example, Chris Whittle's Channel One, a 10-minute news show complete with 2 minutes of commercials that students are forced to watch daily in exchange for the schools' use of free TV sets and VCRs. Or consider Teladco Corporation in Georgia, which advertises to students as they use pay telephones in their public schools in exchange for a “rental fee” paid to the school district. This is not what is usually acceptable as businesses push for public/private school cooperation.

A Public Responsibility

If the National Education Goals are to be achieved, and if we are to educate citizens to lead our great democracy in the 21st century, the school-as-marketplace concept will have to go. The market is highly efficient, but it has no goal, no ideology, is impartial, and is impersonal. It knows all about prices, but nothing about value. Markets, by their nature, strive to separate diverse individuals into homogeneous groups. Market control in education enables private schools to “please” their clients, “fulfill” their “interests,” “tastes,” “needs” and “wants.” By advocating a market school system or product, proponents are recommending that we turn the ordering of social and individual values in public education on its head, that the purpose of taxing American citizens for education should be to fulfill private interests—whether Whittle or Teladco—rather than to pursue the public interest (Shanker and Rosenberg 1990).
Finally, making things right for children and for public education is a public responsibility. It requires leadership at all levels to take constructive, positive action in making the case for public education. We must not confuse public education with defending the institutional barriers that currently get in the way of providing first-class service for all our children. This requires a national rediscovery about the derivations of the common school and an educational campaign that touches parents, teachers, administrators, business, and retirees. Policymakers—starting with the President, the U.S. Congress, and the Courts—need a refresher course on the principles of public education. The public must make them aware of the policy reasons why public dollars should go only to public schools.
Last, we must counter the impact of private school lobbies, their simplified statistics and arguments, and the influence they are having around the country. Notwithstanding his support of private school vouchers, Denis Doyle, writing about support of schools, got one thing right when he said, “If I could do only one thing to improve our schools, it would be to disabuse all Americans of the notion that improving education is `someone else's problem.' It is your problem and mine, and we all must recognize this fact as the first step toward improving the schools” (1992).

Our Real Choice?

The real choice, then, before the American people is not whether parents shall have more control over the education of their children, but whether the ideal of a common school system devoted primarily to the task of building a civic and academic community among the vast majority of citizens shall be given up in favor of private choice. The real choice is whether all children will receive an excellent education no matter what their place of residence or parent's income. The real choice is how to convince the 75 percent of the adult population who have no children in school that the old need the young as much as the young need a caring adult population. The real choice is if we can make the case for parents that in an interdependent society, the education of our neighbor's child, or that of a child in another state, is as important as that of our own child.
The real choice is if we as a society can reach consensus about educational standards and the nature of an educated person. The real choice is leadership that will enable us to broaden our vision beyond vouchers to the excitement of a public learning system that provides universal excellence in the common school setting.

Bast, J., and D. Bast, eds. (May 1991). Rebuilding America's Schools. Chicago: The Heartland Institute.

Burns, J. M. (1982). The Vineyard of Liberty: The American Experiment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cremin, L. A. (1989). Popular Education and Its Discontents. New York: Harper and Row.

Davis, C. S. (1947). “Popular Government.” Reprinted in Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy, edited by J. L. Blau. New York: Hafner Press.

Doyle, D. P. (March 1992). “The Challenge, The Opportunity.” Phi Delta Kappan: 512–520.

Lightfoot, S. L. (1985). The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Shanker, A., and B. Rosenberg. (Winter 1990). “Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.” Paper, American Federation of Teachers.

Arnold F. Fege has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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