Education Opinion

Fighting to keep public schools public

By Deborah Meier — March 28, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Diane,

There are trade-offs. I’m more worried about privatization than I am about bad science teaching—although, and perhaps because, I care a lot about science. So we agree on the ends, if not the means.

The reason I care so much about science education is that science is not only a tool for improving our technological capacities, but it’s a way of thinking that is essential for all modern day citizens of the world. It’s not dogma, even good dogma, although as too often taught today it is hard to distinguish it from dogma or a magic show.

What you and I like about it, I’m sure, is that it rests on is an approach to seeking the truth about a great many questions (but not all) that helps us live together despite very great differences on matters of great importance. And that “approach"—the habits of mind underlying its approach—holds value for all our academic disciplines, as well as those we live by daily. We tried to systematize them at the schools I was associated with in East Harlem and Boston. Those ‘habits” are what we need to be arguing about, because “habits” take years to develop, and are hard to slough off. From my standpoint that’s what we set aside those K-12 years for, because the ones I had in mind are the habits of democracy and won’t just appear because we send kids to school. They are my “ends,” by which I set my “means.” Such “ends” do not have to be the same for us all, but they sure need to be publicly acceptable.

Creating school’s “trusted” by the families who send their children to them, responsible to democratically chosen public bodies, accountable to make their work open and public—and to serve all the children and their families equally is not easy to design. We haven’t done it, at least not in our urban centers. They are balkanized, distrusted, without public input, and don’t serve all children equally.

Once we give up the “public” part we’ve given up the whole ballgame—so it’s the last thing I’m willing to compromise with. It’s shocking to realize that even my favorite foundations are in a position to put in a few cents for every $100 of public funds and in return get to dictate educational policy, while the citizens who pay the other $99.90 have increasingly little sway. In NYC the only voice they have is in the selection of the mayor—there are no go-betweens to moderate public policy.

When I was born there were 200,000 school boards in America—mostly elected by their local citizens. Today, in a school system more than twice as large, we have about 10,000, and with increasingly little power to make important decisions. In the case of NYC we have 1.2 million kids in schools with no, absolutely no, school board whatsoever.

Before our public officials hand them over to private organizations—for profit or not-for-profit—I want to see us put up a fight for making them public again.

Our schools ought to not only be where we teach about democracy, but they ought to belong to our democracy. So, maybe we have to fight about these other matters, Diane, but I’m glad we are united on this one.

More about Tough Choices another time. They have it right—choices are tough—but alas they’ve made all the wrong ones.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.