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Public's Ties to Schools Unraveling, Book Argues

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Washington

The centuries-old ties that bind the American people and public schools are dangerously frayed, a book released here last week concludes.

Instead of rallying around their schools, writes David Mathews, the president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, citizens no longer believe the public schools belong to them. Indeed, "Americans are more than halfway out the schoolhouse door."

Mr. Mathews, who served as the secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Ford, bases his conclusions on more than 10 years of research conducted for the Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering Foundation.

"There are disturbing indications that the compact between the public and public education is close to null and void," Mr. Mathews said last week at a press conference held here to release Is There a Public for Public Schools?

The solution, he said, lies not with devising strategies to engage the public in specific reforms of schools. Instead, communities must define what they want for themselves and what roles schools should play.

The character of public life, Mr. Mathews argues in his book, is intimately related to what goes on in schools, since many of the ills plaguing schools are symptoms of larger problems in society.

People who are actively engaged in finding solutions also are more likely to take responsibility for problems than those who have been sold an externally devised set of solutions, Mr. Mathews said. He praised the role that groups such as local education foundations can play in bringing communities together.

'Teaching Alone?'

The book places the concerns about public schools within a larger framework of academic research on "civil societies." This research gained widespread notice last year with the publication of "Bowling Alone," a study by Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam that found a decline in participation in traditional civic institutions such as bowling leagues.

"What if we are not just bowling alone," Mr. Mathews asked, "but teaching alone?"

The Kettering Foundation has a long history of studying the role of public deliberation in a democracy. It works closely with Public Agenda, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that examines public attitudes.

The two organizations sponsor forums in cities across the country that bring people together to discuss issues such as family life, America's global role, and wage stagnation.

Initially, Kettering researchers were reluctant to believe that the public and its schools were moving apart, Mr. Mathews said. But numerous studies--conducted by different researchers using a variety of methods--suggested that people are no longer strongly committed to the idea of public schools for the benefit of the entire community.

Until recently, schools were seen as "primary instruments of our country's objectives"--from uniting a diverse population to ensuring equity to defending the nation against the then Soviet Union's technological advances.

The public has become deeply ambivalent about the role of public schools, Mr. Mathews said: People want to support them, but also want their children to receive a good education. Increasingly, they see the two goals as conflicting.

Schools are viewed as remote institutions controlled by professionals who are failing to teach children the fundamentals, Mr. Mathews says in his book. This, in turn, has eroded the larger civic purpose of public education.

"People reason that, if the schools can't help individuals, they certainly can't help the larger community," he writes.

While Americans are not as deeply discontented with public schools as they are with Congress, Mr. Mathews said, they feel little sense of ownership over the schools. Court rulings, increased financial control by state governments, and the growth of a professional class of educators have distanced the public from schools.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, the dean of the school of education at George Washington University and a trustee of the Kettering Foundation, said the book will force educators to confront the reality of waning public support.

"Public schools do not stand alone," Ms. Futrell, a former president of the National Education Association, said at the news conference. "This book can help us to understand why it has been almost impossible to change the schools. They can't change unless people in the community buy into and understand the changes."

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