Toward New Coalitions for Public Education

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Looking ahead, it is easy to become increasingly pessimistic about public support for the common schools. Major signs, especially continuing inflation, current tax revolts at the state and local level, an aging population, and an increased interest in voucher schemes and federal tuition tax credits all point to a re-privatization of educational services and to fewer public resources for education generally.

The logical result of these trends is unsettling, to say the least. At the end of this road may well be ghetto-ized schools for the urban poor, non-English-language schools for Hispanics, racially pure schools for the bigoted, religious schools for the devout, and for the well-off, a wholesale reversion to the private academies of the 19th century. It is difficult to see how any coherent value consensus in the society at large could possibly survive such fragmentation of educational programs, institutions, and support systems.

These dismal scenarios are, of course, not inevitable. But if the pro-school coalitions of the recent past are dissolving, are there signs that new and reasonably broad-based coalitions are in the making? If not, are there indications of emerging precoalition forces or concepts that might in the near future catch the imagination and the allegiance of diverse interests? In short, are there harbingers of a positive "second transformation of the school" that might give hope to those who now see their basic educational faith under impossible strain?

There are tantalizing hints that new coalitions are possible and might well be catalyzed by unfolding social and economic realities. There is much we do not know and cannot know about the remainder of this troubled century, but there is much that can be surmised with varying degrees of probability.

First, current demographic patterns and projections assure in many parts of the nation an increase in elementary-school enrollment by 1984. With this will come an increase in the number of adults concerned with the condition and quality of schools.

Second, the greater number of families in which both parents work will exert additional pressure on the community, including the schools, to provide surrogate homes for children that provide both safe and constructive environments. The awakened interest of working parents in day-care centers is evidence of the need for such surrogate homes. The custodial functions of schools may well receive a new burst of parental attention and interest in the years ahead.

Third, in an unsettled, but inflationary, economic climate, tax credits sufficient to induce a substantial number of parents to transfer their children to private schools may be too costly for a federal budget already under severe strain. Further, voucher proposals may well turn out in practice to present grotesque administrative problems. The potential negative consequences of these experiments may ultimately induce people to stop looking for escape mechanisms and instead to coalesce to improve the common schools. Failing this, the public system in sheer self-defense may have to develop some as yet unforeseeable coalitions with tuition-tax-credit and voucher proponents to claim an essential part of a diminishing pie.

Fourth, wholesale tax-and-spending reduction movements like those in California and Massachusetts can be carried only so far. As the public becomes increasingly aware of what a substantial loss of public services can do to the quality of life, steps will inevitably be taken to increase expenditures for necessary public functions, including education. For example, one of the most successful examples of collective action by pro-education forces at the state level during the past few years has been the "Tuesday Night Group" in California. In many respects, TNG is a state counterpart to the Committee for Full Funding at the national level. "Comprised primarily of old-line education groups and big-city districts, the TNG focuses on fiscal issues and eschews substantive matters that would inevitably lead to conflict," according to the researchers Michael W. Kirst and Stephen A. Somers. TNG is credited with minimizing the predicted dire impact of Proposition 13 on the schools.

Fifth, economic necessity may drive the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association together. They have frequently worked together on specific legislative issues at both the state and federal level. In the recent political history of states and the federal government, both have demonstrated the power of organization in influencing elections and determining public policy. Both NEA and AFT have suffered from divisiveness and from a growing alienation between teachers on the one side and potential friends on the other. If they can find other areas of cooperation and can work together on cultivating public support, they can become energizing forces in the development of local, state, regional, and national coalitions whose major purpose is the improvement of the condition and quality of American education.

Sixth, American business and industry have a vital stake in the health of American education.

The industrial retraining of high-school dropouts or graduates is an expensive proposition. Poor schooling may be an important aspect of the nation's decline in economic productivity. As this connection becomes manifest, the business community may well increase its attention to schooling. In February 1981 a group of the top companies in California joined with educational leaders to discuss the plight of public education. Such conferences may well spring up in other regions of the country in the months and years ahead.

Seventh, the increasing number of minorities (specifically black and Hispanic), their desire to move into the mainstream of middle-class American life, and their growing political sophistication may well--at least in certain areas of the country--become major forces in inducing political leaders to increase the resources available for education. Over the next decade the proportion of school-age blacks and Hispanics to whites at the same age level will increase dramatically.

Eighth, the movement to establish and enforce minimum-competency requirements for high-school graduation in the late 1970's--although simplistic in some ways--is evidence of a growing public concern with the educational outcomes of our schools. This movement is ongoing.

Ninth, a number of foundations, professional associations, and professional scholars are at present conducting studies about elementary and secondary education--possibly indicating the beginning of a new commitment to educational improvement.

Finally, there are a large number of educational officials at all levels of government who are deeply involved in educational problems and who have direct lines of communication to top policymakers in both the legislative and executive branches of the government. These officials are, of course, subject to the policy directives set by these popularly elected executives and lawmakers. But they and the myriad professional and interest-group associations that work intimately with them are now major forces in the society.

More than dependent variables, they are initiators and monitors of policies and programs. They and their legislative allies (including legislative staff) are important parts of the policy infrastructure of modern governance. Their personal and professional status is associated with the general fate of education in the nation. They are consistently available as potential partners in new coalitions in support of schools.

Whether these various signs and forces will in fact add up to new coalitions of support for schools (and, if so, which schools), only the future can tell. Contrary indications preclude optimism. On the other hand, there are sufficient signs of an overarching and growing public concern about the state of the nation generally to suggest at least the possibility that education may once again be viewed as a major long-range instrument of national security, economic growth, and social stability.

For example, the state of the voluntary armed services and their inability to attract personnel able to handle complex machines of modern warfare are realities that will not soon go away and that have direct implications for educational policy. That the Soviet Union is evidently far more rigorous than the United States in insisting on advanced work in science and math as a secondary school requirement has become a topic of discussion at the highest levels of the American government.

On the economic front, the Japanese are outproducing the United States in part because Japan requires that its pupils spend longer hours in school and do more advanced work in math and technology-related subjects than American students. Michael Kirst reports that "Japanese children work much harder on difficult academic tasks than their American counterparts. Japanese children attend school about 225 days (each year) while California children are in school 180 days." If appropriate links can be proved between a better education and technological prowess, schools in this country may well receive a new burst of attention. How long it will take the nation's top leadership to see education once again as a key investment in America's future, no one can tell. But it would be strange indeed if some rising politicians in the next decade, recognizing the instrumental effect of education for the nation as a whole and its patent relationship to the broad national interest, did not begin the process of coalition-building toward greater public support for education.

A similar tendency could well develop at the state and local level, as interstate and regional competition develop to attract new industry to particular locations. A well-trained and highly educated population is a major asset in attracting new industry and new services to any geographic area.

Growing social pathologies in the nation--crime, divorce, drug abuse, urban ghettos, racial and ethnic conflict--prompt the search for solutions. The need to rescue education may, in the light of such pressing social problems, seem slight, but it is oftentimes the only source of long-range hope. Thus, in addition to specific factors that might stimulate the formation of pro-education coalitions in various places and among various groups around the country, there are, in fact, nationwide concerns that might well refocus public policy on the importance of improving educational services.

It seems clear, however, that whatever coalitions of support for schools are formed in the years ahead, the context of coalition-building will differ markedly from the past.

Demography will not be a tail wind but a head wind. Many groups and interests will be searching for re-privatization of education and will avoid political coalitions devoted to public-school issues only. Furthermore, with the projected diminution of federal control, increased authority will be returned to the states. And with decremental budgets the rule, state coalitions will have their work cut out for them. In many cases they will compete with other states and municipal services also faced with punitive fiscal constraints.

In some states, such as New York, there are signs that the governor and state legislature are becoming increasingly preoccupied with total state aid to localities, and are thus increasingly reluctant to mediate among contending local claimants. Carried to its logical extreme, this trend would make educational coalition-building a largely local and bruising activity.

Perhaps most unsettling of all, new coalitions will have to deal with the searing political problem of how to form coalitions around imprecise, multiple, and often competing educational goals--for the central dream of perpetual social progress and individual fulfillment that once informed the great educational coalitions of the past, and the idea of a common school that would give everyone an equal chance, are no longer predominant features of America's ideological landscape. A 1980 Gallup poll suggests that the decline in the rating given to public schools has come to a halt, and that public schools are now held in high regard relative to other public institutions. But there is little evidence of a clear vision of the functions and purposes of public schooling, and there are increasing signs that small and local minorities wish to dominate school curricula and materials. Current battles over sex education, environmental education, tuition tax credits, creationist versus evolutionary theories, bilingualism, busing, mainstreaming for the handicapped--to name a few contentious issues--suggest that single-issue politics has also hit the schools. "Basic skills" seems to be the only center of real agreement, and even here there are enormous differences about what these words really mean.

Some recent attempts to make broad-based national political coalitions for public education fly have either not gotten off the runway (i.e., the NEA-sponsored National Trust for the Public Schools) or have taken off solely to shoot something else down.

The National Coalition for Public Education (formerly the National Coalition to Save Public Education) has a substantial membership from liberal and labor organizations, but it has solely concentrated on defeating tuition-tax-credit legislation. Furthermore, its "lib-lab" composition has tended to deprive it of the kind of support from business, industry, agriculture, the news media, and prestigious professions that were so prominent an aspect of the White House Conference on Education in 1955. NCPE can perhaps extend its membership base in the years ahead, but it will have to transcend its present negative crusade and find points of ideological linkage with those concerned with the relationship of education to larger issues of American culture, prosperity, and security.

In the immediate future, premature attempts to form large-scale educational coalitions will certainly fail.

Such coalitions may have to be preceded by far less formal colloquies of concern--colloquies involving a diverse assembly of groups with quite varying intermediate agendas, but that share anxieties about the consequences of an unredeemed educational system and an underfunded public sector generally.

One thing is clear. The builders of new pro-school coalitions must be more than journeyman politicians responding to majority pressures. They must be artisans--perhaps artists--who can see education's place in the national tapestry, and who can weave local and parochial interest, as well as the nation's golden (if tattered) thread of noblesse oblige, into an original and compelling grand design.

Vol. 01, Issue 06, Page 18-19

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories