Monthly Archives: March 2017

What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

****************************************************************

My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.