Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

Solution or Problem?

By James H. K. Norton — March 29, 2000 9 min read
The most critical objectives for schools in educating our children for democracy are equity and civility.

Using vouchers to allow parents to select what appears to them to be the best school alternative for their children is not a good means for achieving school reform. It is more a part of the problem with public education in our country than of the solution. I come to this conclusion as one who has spent a significant part of his life roaming the classrooms and hallways of our local public schools: as an organizer of an alternative school for 9th grade potential dropouts while a young college teacher in the 1960s; as a substitute teacher, observer, negotiator, and part-time administrator; but most intensively—over 20 years—as an active elected school board member. I have dealt with school finances, with administrator evaluations and searches (including no fewer than seven superintendent selections), and with a wide variety of curricular issues. Although I brought to this position an academic background, with a special interest in student learning (which is probably why I stuck with it for so long), I saw my role as a board member as a representative role. I strove to become a window through which I encouraged the school to see the community and the community to see the school.

My most challenging, certainly the most engaging, moments as a school board member have occurred when what I saw happening in the schools was the acting out of issues and concerns not of education, but of society’s values and expectations of itself. In so many ways, schools are arenas in which the contradictions, ambiguities, and conflicts of society as a whole are played out. These include issues of class rank, of ability grouping of students (sometimes called “leveling” to avoid the pejorative connotation of tracking), of condom-dispensing machines, of many kinds of violence, from bomb threats to date rape, all of which have found their way into the rarefied confines of school board meetings for anguished deliberation. All such issues are complex, and have a great deal to say about what we want to be happening in our schools. But in each instance, I found myself pondering the image of the community that was being expressed, indeed, being imposed, by the community on to the school.

This experience and perspective inform my response to vouchers, presently advocated as an option in response to the widely held impression in our society that the public school system is not working. My contention is essentially this: The voucher system is a manifestation of a prevalent conviction that the free operation of market forces, of economic competitiveness, is the most effective means of achieving success in most essential sectors of our society. But the free exercise of these market forces, when allowed to function in our schools, is actually counterproductive—even potentially destructive—to achieving the most vital objectives needed to educate our children for creative and responsible lives in a democratic society.

Even though it may teach survival skills in a free-market economy, a voucher system does not, it seems to me, engender the two most critical objectives public schools should pursue in both modeling and preparing our children to live productive lives in free and socially responsive relationships—something upon which our future as a democratic society depends.

The most critical objectives for schools in educating our children for democracy are equity and civility. By civility, I mean more than just good behavior. I intend by this word to identify a sense of inclusive civic responsibility—what Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart calls “civic membership"—or an active, participatory awareness of the public good for everyone.

The free exercise of market forces, when allowed to function in our schools, is actually counterproductive.

Equity is a primary issue in public schools because they cannot be selective in admissions. That every child is entitled to an education provides many opportunities in our public schools to affirm the most revolutionary concept of our national identity: the radical proposition that all people are created equal.

Every child who enters the school’s doors is naturally a learner. It is a natural condition because, of all the species on the planet, we humans are the least instinctually programmed. In Jacob Bronowski’s delightful phrase, we “are born unfinished.” So we are all born learners. Schools have an exciting as well as demanding opportunity—even a responsibility, I would suggest—to encourage all children to be learners: to discover, nurture, and develop skills to become lifelong learners in a wide variety of learning styles and contexts. Equity in our schools demands that we recognize that every child has a gift for learning. The challenge for our teachers is to discover and nurture that gift.

Every child who enters the school’s doors is naturally a learner.

Several years ago, I came upon a suggestion that education can be viewed as either a pump or a sieve. The pump image is one that engages and urges all students along a path of learning. The sieve selects out and allows through only those deemed worthy. Equity in education requires the pump image. But such is not in common practice in education in America today, in large part because of the prevalence of the market forces and class stratification dominant in our society being acted out in our schools.

In his recent book Class Struggle, the Washington Post staff writer Jay Mathews identifies this equity issue in the ability grouping of students (called “leveling here”) in one of the nation’s leading public schools, New Trier High School, in Winnetka, Ill. When the school was evaluated for recertification a few years ago, he writes:

“The group evaluating the math department ... found the level system to be ‘out of control’ and ‘did more to serve the needs of parents and to perform a sorting of students for college entrance than to provide for individual differences.’ ... The evaluators were particularly disturbed that the level system fed off flawed middle school selection procedures for 7th grade algebra that ‘disqualify a large number of talented youth who are prepared to study algebra.’ To their astonishment, they found no female students in 7th grade algebra that year.”

Mr. Mathews identifies the same issue in this insightful description of another outstanding public high school, in Rye, N.Y.: “Mamaroneck had been built by parents and school board members who wanted their children, and themselves, to feel that they had been set above the average, and that emotional and political need was more powerful than the instincts of teachers about how children learned.”

Both of these examples are significant because they portray not what either school or community says or teaches about equity, but what they are doing. And much as we are loath to admit it, we, parents and teachers alike, know that children learn not by what we say, but by what we do.

School vouchers provide opportunity for a selected group of students and count upon the indirect effect of market forces to energize the abandoned schools into reform. Such a policy undermines the objective of equity in education because it does not sustain our immediate responsibility to affirm all children as learners. The advantage of opting out takes precedence over the challenge of engaging in.

“Engaging in” the opportunity for learning for all children is also required to achieve civility, the second critical objective for the reform of our educational system. An inclusive rather than selective social context is essential to generate among our children a vital, engaging, and inclusive understanding of the public good. The isolation experienced by the two students who perpetrated the killings at Colorado’s Columbine High School is endemic to too many other instances of violence in our schools. Such isolation affirms the critical importance of civility as an objective for our education, and how far we are as a nation from achieving it.

Recent polls revealing that 77 percent of college students surveyed are sure they will become millionaires during their lifetimes—and that less than 25 percent of that age group votes in elections—illustrate one dimension of the disconnect between self-interest and public good in our society. In my own public experience, I have been struck by how elusive any awareness of, let alone commitment to, a sense of public good is. I was surprised once by a lack of support in appealing to the common good over an issue of protecting a pure water supply for our community. Many were too preoccupied in trying to discover what ostensibly hidden self-interest I was seeking as their only source of reference for any passion I might have on such a subject.

Our schools have an immense challenge to affirm and develop a responsible sense of inclusive respect among all who participate in the daily life of educational institutions: students, parents, teachers, support staff, and community volunteers. This challenge is particularly demanding because the dominant social values of our society at this time (as identified in Robert Bellah’s survey of the American people, recorded in Habits of the Heart) are pragmatic individualism, neocapitalism, and class. These values separate us into status units in which we are individually responsible for our own economic welfare. It divides us into haves and have-nots, successes and failures, winners and losers.

Is it a solution, or part of the problem?

The new introduction to Habits of the Heart (1996 edition) cites the plight of health care in our country as an example of the negative consequences of the pervasive authority of these values. It is my contention that the voucher proposal also grows out of and affirms these dominant values. The issue to be addressed when considering vouchers is thus whether a further imposition of these values into our educational program for children is an effective avenue for reform of our schools. Or is it rather an extension of one of the major obstacles to the education of our children that any significant reform must address and overcome? Is it a solution, or part of the problem? The underlying question is whether vouchers as an instrument of reform are a satisfactory answer to the challenge of equity and civility in all of our public schools.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed during the early years of the 19th century that the future of democracy in America is not dependent upon institutional or authority structures, but much more vulnerably on the “habits of the heart” of the American people.

In our public school system, we have an incredible opportunity to encourage and nourish these habits on which our future as a democracy depends, but only if we encourage and demonstrate such values ourselves.

India and South Asia

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A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Solution or Problem?

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