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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as A Fine Communitarianism This Is

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A Fine Communitarianism This Is

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Most, though clearly not all, op-ed pieces identify a public-policy issue that has recently been in the news, come down on one side of it, marshal arguments for that side, and point up how shortsighted, foolish, or downright evil the adherents of the other side are. Amitai Etzioni follows this course in his April 8, 1998, Commentary, "Thou Shalt Not Help Thy Kids". A while back, Rudy Crew, the New York City schools chancellor, had stopped parents in a city school from raising money to pay a teacher who was about to become a victim of budget cuts. Similar incidents had occurred in other places around the country. For Mr. Etzioni, school officials' barring parents from raising funds for their own children is the new "scandal" of the public schools.

Instead of plunging in on one side or the other of this issue, let us look at the painful choices faced by both parents and school officials in such circumstances, and examine the larger context which makes such choices necessary. The parents at Public School 41 (I once heard the late Michael Harrington speak eloquently there on the question of equality of opportunity for all Americans) see that a teacher is about to be cut for budgetary reasons. They protest, but find that the teacher will be cut anyway. As a last resort, they offer to raise the money to pay for the teacher's salary and benefits package. Some of these parents from a progressive neighborhood with a long tradition of concern for social equality, in fact, find the choice a difficult one. They are well aware that the parents of children in some other Manhattan neighborhoods where teachers are also being let go are financially unable to raise the $40,000 or more it would take to hire a teacher for their children. They have neighbors who have recently moved to Scarsdale or Great Neck so their children might attend vastly better-funded schools; others have sent their children to selective and expensive private schools. In the end, the fund-raising parents, some callously, but others with sadness and a promise to work for more money for all New York City public schools next year, decide to buy a teacher for their own children.

And what of Mr. Crew, and other school officials faced with the same legal and moral issues? Their roles are quite different from those of the parents of children in a particular school. They are charged with seeking equity for all children within the educational unit for which they are responsible. Similarly, governors, state legislatures, and the courts throughout the nation have tried, through state educational aid formulas, to remedy glaring inequities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poorer districts. Mr. Crew tells the parents they cannot hire the teacher. (Later, of course, he finds a way to do the hiring with school funds.)

I sympathize with the choice the parents of PS 41 made, and I also sympathize with Chancellor Crew's and others' concern with larger equity issues. Both the parents and the school officials are caught in a skewed social and economic context which makes whatever decision they make less than perfect. Where might a sympathetic focus on each of these claims lead us? Recall the now-famous sentences of John Dewey, spoken in a lecture in which Dewey had just reminded his listeners that most of us look at schools from an individual perspective, concerned with the progress of our own children. "And rightly so," he said. "Yet the range of the outlook needs to be enlarged. What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy."

Dewey, employing his characteristic philosophical approach of seeking to overcome apparent contradiction on a public issue by reformulating it, celebrates parental concern for our own children and insists we must extend that concern to all children. Mr. Etzioni, in contrast, would have us believe that concerns for equity for all children are somehow essentially opposed to parental concerns for their own children.

"In some visionary future," Mr. Etzioni tells us, "we shall all become brothers and sisters ... " For now, he says, "simplistic notions of equity should not come between parents and their children." The rhetoric employed here ridicules not only Rudy Crew and other educational leaders but anyone who recognizes that in educational funding we have serious responsibilities beyond our own families and neighborhoods. What of those who struggle in the public arena, in state legislatures and in the courts to achieve some reductions in the wide disparities that exist in per-pupil expenditures between school districts? Are they all romantic utopians?

Having dismissed the "equity" side of the issue, Mr. Etzioni proceeds with his defense of parents' helping their own children. I have no difficulty with his celebration of family and local communities; it's galling, however, to see it used to defend the privilege of one set of children over another. The communitarian argument about our obligation to our own families and local communities is developed here in a particularly troubling direction. Mr. Etzioni reiterates the standard notion that we are not merely citizens of the state, but members of families and communities; that we have particular obligations to those closest to us, for example, to our own children and to aging members of our families. So far, the argument seems unexceptionable. "Nobody," he tells us further, "in his or her right mind would suggest that we have the same obligations to all children as our moral sense informs us we have to our own children." In fact, there is a long and honored tradition in Western thought--encapsulated in the folk wisdom of the golden rule, "Do unto others ... "--which suggests that the "moral sense" that allows us to see our obligations to our own children requires us, as Dewey urged, to extend that obligation to other people's children.

Of course, in the private realm, it is our own children we prod and encourage, take to libraries and museums; we take in our own elderly parents and provide them with care. But in the public realm, the realm in which we fund education for our children and health care for our parents, we must expand the moral sense which we have toward those closest to us to embrace a larger community. The desires we have for the good of our own children and parents tutor us in the needs of other people. Some take to the tutoring and others do not.

Public education in this country has gradually expanded in the face of the opposition of those focused on the needs of their own children but unwilling to expand that focus to others. Thomas Jefferson was unsuccessful in implementing his very modest plan for setting up a system of public education in Virginia because, while his planter-class neighbors were willing to send their own sons and daughters to tutors and to private schools, they were not willing to spend their money sending other people's children to school for even a period of three years.

Mr. Etzioni argues that government ought not to stop people from "extending themselves for their own kind." He uses a language that once again escapes the immediate issue and supports all sorts of Balkanization of the society. His is a communitarianism with a Darwinist, libertarian tilt. "Extending themselves for their own kind" was the argument used historically by school segregationists in the South who from Reconstruction until past the middle of this century spent five times as much on white pupils as they did on African-American children. It was used somewhat more guiltily by those who sent their children to private schools or moved to the suburbs to escape integrated and poorly performing schools in the cities; and again by those who defended the vast differences between districts that exist in per-pupil expenditures. They all extended themselves for their own families and for "their own kind."

It is far less fruitful to argue over the question of whether parents should be allowed to use their own money to hire a teacher for their children than to ask ourselves whether we want to continue the kind of support structures for public schools that present parents and school officials with such dilemmas. Mr. Etzioni's argument in favor of Mom and Dad's right to help out with their child's education distracts us from what is the major scandal in the way we finance the education of our nation's children: the extraordinarily wide disparities that exist between school districts and states in the amount of money spent on individual children. Had New York City's schools been funded at the level of some of its wealthier suburbs, the parents of PS 41 would never have been faced with the issue of buying themselves a teacher.


William A. Proefriedt is a professor emeritus of education at Queens College, City University of New York, where he continues to teach on an adjunct basis.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 41

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