'The Public For Public Schools Is Slipping'

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Is America committed to its public schools? Of course it is. I've always believed that and thought that everybody else did, too. If you ask Americans about their support, people usually say, yes, we need public schools.

Many Americans, however, are torn between a sense of duty to support a public school system and an obligation to do what's best for their own children. People believe that the schools are often too plagued by disorder and hamstrung by social problems to provide a good education. Changing the situation appears nearly impossible because Americans see the causes as deep cracks in the foundations of society--a breakdown of the family and the norms of responsible behavior. Faced with this dilemma, people opt to do what's best for their children. And what they see as best can drive them away from public schools, in spirit if not in fact.

We hear the distress of the public echoed in the frustrations of educators. Teachers know all about social problems and their impact on the classroom. As one said, "I spend 60 percent of my time on discipline; 20 percent on paperwork, and, if I am lucky, I have 20 percent left for instruction."

The historic tie between the public and its schools seems to be weakening. Many people have decided that public schools aren't best for their nor anyone else's children. They would like to stand by these institutions but no longer believe they can.

What can be done to reconnect the public to its schools? As I see it, it's not just that the schools need to be improved. It's the relationship between the schools and the community that needs repair. We won't begin to get at what has gone wrong in that relationship until we think the unthinkable--that the public for public schools is slipping away.

What originally connected the public to the public schools? The relationship meant more than public financing and control by a board of citizens. Historically, public schools in America meant schools that were the public's--schools that were instruments of the people, chartered to do the important work of American society.

Public schools were as much a foundation for our democracy as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We created a system to promote individual freedom and relied on the schools for social cohesion. Yet, stability was not our highest ambition; America was founded to write a new chapter in human history--to create a "new secular order," an ambition so important that it was stamped on the one-dollar bill. Public schools were agents of that ambition; they were to complete "the great work of the Revolution."

Throughout our history, schools have been the instruments of our country's objectives--from insuring equity to defending the nation against the technological rival we once saw in the Soviet Union. Early schools were also public in that the citizenry was directly involved in their operation. Citizens built the schools and controlled them through local trustees. The community wasn't just "involved" in the schools; the two were inseparable. Different Americans had different reasons for subscribing to public schools; nonetheless, by the nineteenth century all parties had come to much the same conclusions--that public schools were an essential public good and that they were to be public in character, that is, to mirror the highest ideals of a democratic public--to provide an opportunity for everyone to reach his or her fullest potential.

Because the schools served the largest public interests and because they helped create the kind of country and communities we wanted, everybody was obliged to support them. That was the basis for the relationship between the citizenry and the public schools, the logic of the contract with the public.

What happened to this history? While Americans didn't change the mandate for the public schools immediately, they subcontracted much of the operational responsibility to a new group of professionals. The public, as a real force in the life of a school, was eventually rooted out, first with the good intention of getting "politics" out of education. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, administrators, who made little distinction between politicians and the public, took direct aim at the democratic control of schools. They argued that the schools really did not belong to the public, but to the school administration.

While administrators did not succeed in gaining total control (far from it), disenfranchising the public opened up a division between citizens and their schools. Inherently political issues in the educational debate became masked as scientific or technical considerations--which were not the province of citizens. Other forces contributed to widening the distance between the public and its schools, which can be measured today in the way Americans react to school reforms.

Despite considerable effort, a good many reforms are failing now, "divided within and besieged without," according to Public Agenda research. Reporters such as Katherine Boo at The Washington Post, have found that reformers aren't inclined to include the public (not even parents). While they pay "lip service" to the notion of involvement, reformers work "doggedly to keep the masses from messing with their plans." The consequence is that special interests substitute for the public at large.

Any lack of confidence reformers have in the public is reciprocated. The reform debate strikes the public as incoherent and irrelevant. Many Americans feel that the leaders don't really understand their concerns. People are saying, in effect, "We are over here with our problems, and reformers are over there with their plans." Citizens are frustrated by a lack of handles to take hold of the problems that concern them. They say such things as, "I wouldn't know how to be involved, I really wouldn't."

Finally, and most serious of all, the public may be unwilling to be involved in reforms because many people don't believe the schools are really theirs. When asked who "owned" the local schools, a New Jersey man said he was certain that they didn't belong to the people; they were, he said with conviction, "not our schools."

Although Americans worry about a country without public schools, the question remains: Can we have schools open and common to all and, at the same time, get what is best for our children? Decisions of a century ago don't hold now. What the citizenry will eventually decide is impossible to predict. Nonetheless, as push comes to shove in the 1990's, many say they would forgo the unique benefits of a public school system to get a good education for their children.

The relationship between the public and its schools may have weakened to the point that we cannot start with reforms. One alternative suggested by our history is that reconnecting the public and the schools might come from retracing our steps. That would mean starting with the public rather than the schools.

Better public relations and techniques to "involve the community" don't get at the roots of the problem. Publics are formed around answers to a prior question: "What kind of community do we want to be?" We have to start with that question because the conversations that follow inevitably lead to discussions of education.

Education, which is more than schooling, is a necessary means to accomplishing public ends. A new mandate for a community and all education could be the basis for a new contract between the public and its schools.

All public schools may have to be rechartered--re-commissioned by the public to do the public's work.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Page 37

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as 'The Public For Public Schools Is Slipping'
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