Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Who is making the argument FOR public schools?

In our (what may be a week-long) look at schools and education, I am drawn to a conversation Mrs. Expat Teacher had with a close friend of hers. This friend, Nancy*, has a one-year old son. Nancy and her husband are already looking into where to send their son to school. After a long talk, it became obvious to Mrs. Expat Teacher that Nancy was only considering a private, Christian school or homeschooling.

Mrs. Expat Teacher had a long impassioned conversation with Nancy about the negative aspects of homeschooling and why Christians should be involved in public schools. Nancy and her husband are both graduates of the public school system. They are both successful, educated and still Christians, but that doesn't seem to register in Nancy's mind. That I was a teacher and Mrs. Expat Teacher works for a school meant that we were "biased" and couldn't argue with her. (Does she make the same argument when she goes to the doctor? "Yes doctor I understand you want me to lose weight/have an operation/see a specialist, but really aren't you just biased toward better health?")

Nancy's mind was made up, but it didn't take long in their conversation to see that because Nancy, and millions of others like her, are bearing the increasing share of the tax burden, a private Christian school is financially out the question. Nancy has all but decided to homeschool their son. I'm not going to make the argument against homeschooling. You can find some preliminary ones here

Instead, I want to ask...who is making the argument for public schooling? The Right has launched an attack on public schools for over 3 decades. Sometimes for good reasons. Some schools in some areas are downright horrible. Yet, most aren't. Most, in fact, are a positive addition to their society and help everyone develop that "American" flavor we all have.

Some people believe that education is a private good that should be treated like any other private good. It should be created, distributed and sold in an efficient market similar to cars, soaps and widgets. By private good, I mean for the consumption of educational consumers to enrich their lives only. Others believe that education is a public good that helps society at large. They believe that controls must be implemented to ensure that all citizens are given the same education and finish with a similar quality education. By public good, I mean pro bono publico, the good of the all people in a society.

There are three options for the goals of education: Democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility.

Democratic equality schooling is designed to prepare people for a political life; therefore it is pro bono publico. The social efficiency approach to schooling argues that our economic well-being depends on our ability to prepare the young to function within our economy. The idea is that we all benefit from a healthy economy and the tax contributions of working individuals; therefore this is a public good. It is the investments in education by society at large that benefit, not the individual, but taxpayers and employers. The social mobility approach to schooling argues that education is a commodity, whose only purpose is to provide students with a competitive advantage to secure a more desirable social position. The aim is to get more of this commodity than those around you, which leads to a highly stratified and unequal distribution. Education, as seen by a social mobilitist, is a private good designed to prepare individuals for a successful life in a competitive social and economic market. From this perspective it is the individual consumer that wins, therefore education is a private good.

Given that the Right has tried to push the social mobility aspect via free market voucher schemes for most of my life, it seems to have won over others of my generation. Nancy is certainly convinced.

The NEA, arguably one of the most ineffective unions (although the Northwest Airline's mechanics' union might be more so), has never really pushed back against this selfish social mobility view and argued the pro bono publico that public schools bring to America.

I am sounding a clarion call - who will defend the value of public schools?

*name changed to protect the guilty