Why a Recommitment to Public Education Is Essential—and Possible

This post is, in some ways, a follow-up to Walter Breau’s post on the low numbers of students of color taking AP exams in computer science and other STEM subjects, as well as Aaron Barlow’s recent posts on the Common Core standards.

Our K-12 schools, both public and private, have become increasingly bifurcated in terms of the resources available to the teachers and students available to them. In poor urban and rural districts, students have much less daily access to computers and digital technologies than students in more affluent suburban districts do. It’s now more a socio-economic bifurcation than racial segregation, but because students of color are so concentrated in many urban districts, that distinction is more a difference in semantics than a difference in realities.

Proponents of charter schools made the argument that the taxpayers weren’t getting their money’s worth out of public schools in poor districts. So charter-school alternatives, funded with revenues diverted from the public schools, have been established. The best of these charter schools, most of which are operated by non-profit foundations, are excellent. But the same has always been true of a similarly small number of urban public schools. Most of the charter schools, operated by corporations, have been no more successful than the public schools. Indeed, on the standardized tests promoted by the same “reformers” promoting charter schools, a very large percentage of those schools have been producing results every bit as disappointing as the under-performing public schools. Except that now, corporate shareholders are profiting from our failure to provide effective public education.

But this much at least has become clear: most charter schools are not some urban equivalent of suburban private schools; paying teachers less does not improve learning; nor does turning public education into a corporate enterprise. What having “alternatives” means is that we now have a much less uniform and much less manageable allocation of available resources.

There are no “easy” or cheap fixes for endemic impoverishment, but the answer is just as clearly not coming from the anti-government side as it did not come from the big-government side that was accused of simply throwing money at problems to very little effect.

The answer, I think, is a much more determined recommitment to public education, with higher allocations to poor districts and very stringent oversight of how the monies are being spent. If public education is going to be seen as a way out of poverty, the public schools need to be seen as physical and visceral representations of the better future available to students who are trying to navigate the many challenges of living in poverty.

In a very recent post, I highlighted the fact that 50% of our national GDP is produced in the top 23 metropolitan areas in the country. So there is a very obvious economic need to insure that the currently very wide gap between suburban and urban school districts is significantly narrowed.

Fifty years ago, the effort to provide equal opportunity to even our nation’s poorest was called the War on Poverty. But our commitment to that “War” was diffused by our prolonged, contentious involvement in the Vietnam War and then, over the last several decades, by our costly involvements in a series of other conflicts. As we finally wind down our presence in Afghanistan and start to confront the many very pressing domestic needs that we have left unaddressed, public education, along with energy and transportation infrastructure, should be at the top of the list of our priorities.

We have become better than any people in history at blowing stuff up, but we seem to have accepted the premise that we can no longer afford or succeed at a commitment to public programs that is as determined as our commitment to maintaining military strength and readiness. I believe that such a premise simply serves the ideological biases of those who believe in a strong military but not in public education and other domestic public institutions. I think that that ideology projects a very warped view of what America is and should be. I believe that our public schools can become as good as we are determined that they should be.

It won’t happen overnight. But we spent a decade in Vietnam and a decade in Iraq, and we have spent a decade and a half in Afghanistan. And I think that it is very arguable–if not very obvious–that the trillions of dollars that we have spent on those conflicts have not had exactly the results that were hoped for. I think that there are very good odds that we can do better much closer to home.

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