Our public schools are vital in the development of capable learners and citizens, and they can offer opportunities for the disadvantaged to rise above challenging circumstances. But they have wrongly become the scapegoat for conditions beyond their control rather than an object of respect and the primary focus for support. While public education certainly is an expensive endeavor, it is first and foremost an obligation. As a society, we are obligated to utilize public education for the good of the entire public-not to simply prepare it for the ravages of the market. Imposing a market or “choice” model will only further segregate and separate citizens the way the market does. This is evident both in news about how celebrated and successful charter schools achieve their often manufactured results, and the increasing disparity in wealth and opportunity between the economic classes in our nation.The collective good, therefor, means resisting a free market mindset when it comes to public education.
I have first-hand experience learning from those who know (those working at NYSED and others familiar with regulations) that as many times as regulations say things are available to all students, and as often as we may know in our hearts what is truly the right thing to do: the state of school funding in New York is a powerful determining factor in what opportunities will actually be available to students in our schools. “Our schools” here is a reference to schools that are truly public, and are mandated to accept and serve all students in their area regardless of economic status, family resources, or special needs. It has become fashionable and politically convenient for some charter schools to call themselves “public charters” while having mechanisms in place to shape their enrollment in ways that artificially improve their results on measures of achievement. Instead of quietly being pleased with their “success”, though, leaders of this type of school will sometimes cast critical light on the truly public schools doing the work they refuse to do. Sometimes they even enlist PR firms, lobbyists and politicians at all levels to promote charter schools without promoting the discussion regarding the money behind them, and who they will and won’t serve.
The inequity in the funds and opportunities available within public schools and in households across the state already undermines our obligation to educate equitably- more so than unions and bad teachers; more so than bureaucracy within the public education system; far more than the lack of tests or test-related consequences. That inequity and poverty outside of the school have an impact within the school is a reality confronted by dedicated educators every day, and one that is avoided by our leaders and policy makers. It would be reassuring to see legislative movement and voice directed at the real classroom heroes and successes that already exist, instead of either hearing about “waiting for superman” (when there are so many super men and women already here) or seeing test-tweaking legislation that doesn’t target the real issues.
We are the public. Public schools belong to all of us, and it is important to discuss them that way. Education is what builds an informed and capable citizenry-one that drives and demands strong, honest leadership and works together for change when leadership strays from the collective values and goals. Whether it is at the voting booth or in mass demonstrations of displeasure-such as the recent “opt out” movement, an educated and informed citizenry informs and shapes the best results. When the populace is educated and informed, and understands its civic duty to move collectively for change, the benefit is widespread. The economy, cohesiveness within the society, and character of the nation all benefit. Our public schools are ours. They exist for the good of all.