A Two-Part Review of Lower and Higher Education in America
Education’s Unique Role in American History
Over the long term, there might be some things more important for the future of this country than education, but we would be hard pressed to make the case for what is more important. America was founded as a country of opportunity and freedom. Where we have failed to meet those goals, it is often because we have failed to provide decent education. Where we have seen inspiring examples of people rising to their full potential, education has usually been a defining factor for success.
Our founders fully got the importance of education. It was a signal quality they all shared and benefited from themselves. The generation that followed them, typified by Horace Mann, carried on that priority and began building the infrastructure to make the vision a reality.
Along the way, our progress has been uneven, at best. We’ll reflect on the highs and lows a bit in the rest of this posting and the one to follow. One of the areas that increasingly pops up as problematic is that of local control vs national standards for education. We live in a global economy and a national set of communities.
Having every locality and every state decide what constitutes core education makes no sense. Having state boards dictate what goes into textbooks is a disaster. Financing schools mostly by property taxes ensures that poor communities will have poor schools – trapping people for life. This is the elephant in the room we need to wrestle to the ground.
Admitting Some Personal Inclinations
This blog is often a statement of my perceptions and priorities, although I try mightily to be fair and to call out facts and opinion as separate (and hopefully supporting) things. Honesty calls me out to say up front that while I see value in all approaches for basic education, I am committed to public schools as a national priority.
As you will see below, I have problems with private/charter schools and home schooling. I would not prohibit anyone from pursuing these other options. I will fight any public resources being misused to support them.
When we get to Part II, I will be equally vocal in my support of public institutions, especially community colleges and technical schools, more reserved in talking about private institutions. All of these higher and lower institutions have contributions to make, but let us be clear about our priorities, especially for investments.
With that forewarning, let us begin.
Why anyone would run to be on a school board is beyond me. It seems to be a vessel for endless punishment of those who signed up. My hat is off to those who try. The last year has highlighted a lot about public schools.
One, most are dramatically underfunded. We knew that before, but the pandemic highlighted they have no reserves to deal with anything. Two, the politics around them are not pleasant. People are quick to bring out their worst in education discussions. Three, teachers are, in most areas, under supported in staffing, administration, and funding. Teachers still routinely buy school supplies out of their own funds. Salaries are too low.
Four, teachers’ unions are too often losing the public relations battle. They are often seen as special interest advocates rather than defenders of education. Five, the pandemic has reminded us starkly of the importance public schools play in socialization. The pandemic also highlighted how poorly we have integrated cutting edge technology into remote learning. We could be doing so much better.
Thank goodness we now have a President (and a First Lady!) who get all this.
Charter & Private Schools
Let’s look at these separately, even though there are some overlaps in terms of issues and resources.
I think it fair to say that the bloom is off the rose a bit for charter schools. Over time and across the country, they don’t seem to be doing much better than traditional schools, in spite of more flexibility, less administration, and better funding. Not only have results been somewhat disappointing, accountability has often been lacking.
I do not think that means charter schools should be banned. I think they offer real value as test beds for new ideas, but having more transparency, accountability, measures of effectiveness would be welcome.
Private Schools are an interesting challenge in several respects. Most are exceptionally well funded and – how to say this? – choosy about who they admit, beyond some token admissions. I do not mean this to be a blanket condemnation; I do not have enough real data to know this in detail, but my sensing is that these are the educational equivalent of gated communities.
If people choose to put their kids in a private school, have at it. But if from there the conclusion is that they have no interest in or stake in public schools, I take exception. We all have that as a core interest or society fails.
I also would resist any particular tax break for such institutions or for any special treatment on zoning, etc. that could come from having well connected alumni families. Most vigorously, I oppose any use of public funds going into education vouchers for supporting such institutions. Anything Betsy DeVos liked so much cannot be a good thing.
The tone is a bit shrill, but there was a recent article in the Atlantic that is worth your time for an inside look at much of what is so problematic about private schools in America. It’s a tough, short read, worth reading. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/private-schools-are-indefensible/618078/
This one is a bit difficult. Fundamentally, I dislike a lot about the concept of home schooling. It seems isolationist and elitist. The process often is badly tinged with what I would consider extreme religious or political philosophies. The whole idea seems to isolate children from important socialization and treats the rest of the community as “Others.”
Still, I know several families that did this well, having produced well balanced and well-educated children. The process of home schooling nationwide seems to be getting better, with more cross-checks on quality and outcomes. So, the option continues, but let’s keep an eye on it.
Much like charter schools, I would oppose any tax breaks for those who choose this route. Similarly, you are in the public system or not. If not, I would not support your kids taking advantage of public school assets like sports, band, etc. If you choose to go it alone, so be it. In or out.
Why Should We Care?
Education equips us for life and for the future, individually and as a society. It is the foundation of national security, economic and otherwise. This is the fabric of national unity and the battle ground for social division. It is a moral and practical imperative. This one is worth our time and trouble to get it right, knowing it is work that will never be completed.
See you on Friday, when we take a look at higher education in America. Good news – no homework going out of today’s post!
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