Special Report
Policy & Politics Reported Essay

What Is the Purpose of School?

Like it or not, educators are in the social-welfare business
By Stephen Sawchuk — September 14, 2021 8 min read
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This story is part of a special project called Big Ideas in which EdWeek reporters ask hard questions about K-12 education’s biggest challenges and offer insights based on their extensive coverage and expertise.

Very early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020, I wrote a story to mark the shuttering of almost every single public school in the nation. It concluded on a hopeful note about a possible wake-up call regarding the incredible number of invisible ways schools serve 50 million children and their families that often go unappreciated.

“There is the specter of a rejuvenation in Americans’ attitudes toward schools, or at least a recognition that the role they play as a provider of social services is indispensable, and possibly even that those functions ought to be reinforced so that schools aren’t left alone to face future crises,” I concluded.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

Instead, there are rumblings that schools could be standing on less solid civic footing than they were before the pandemic—at least when measured by the most tangible factor available: enrollment. It has notably declined, even as home schooling has increased and school choice advocates work to expand tax-credit scholarships and other programs, partly in response to schools’ perceived failings.

What in fact reemerged in public discourse is a long-standing debate that’s often papered over in K-12 education: Americans, including our educators, are divided on what they believe schools’ core role should be.

Is it to convey knowledge and information and prepare students for their futures? Is it to provide guaranteed child care so that the economy can hum along? Is it to provide indispensable welfare services?

How to balance these functions appropriately is a question that will probably never be definitively answered to the approval of all. But it is a key one for districts to revisit as they decide what to do with a mammoth, but time-limited infusion of federal funding.

After all, how districts choose to spend that money serves a symbolic role as well as reflects how they’ve weighed the question of their core role. It conveys what they value, how they plan to reach it—and, importantly, what they feel they can manage.

In part, this tension is reemerging because families depended on schools during the pandemic in large numbers and in big ways. Arguably, they were perhaps the only real infrastructure we had to reach 50 million students and their families. But what we also learned, if we hadn’t already, is that that infrastructure is stretched, creaky, and, yes, not particularly efficient.

Consider, for example, schools’ remarkable shift to remote learning programs in the space of just a few months. Most schools offer one-to-one programs, devices, or internet access—despite the United States’ pointed failure to invest in broadband as a public utility.

And many will be shouldering the responsibility for seamless online learning in perpetuity, especially because of the concerns wrought by the Delta variant.

Schools also rapidly expanded the other social services they offered. Thousands of them used school lunch flexibility to expand the distribution of school meals. Others set up home-visiting programs and knocked on doors to find missing students, and still others are trying to coordinate housing in response to an epidemic of homelessness.

A recent EdWeek Research Center survey showed just how far-reaching some of these services are. It found that 63 percent of administrators reported that their district provided or subsidized internet services; 38 percent work in districts or schools that offered food pantries above and beyond their regular school meal programs; 37 percent said the district or school offered health services; and a third provided laundry facilities.

The pandemic showed the cracks in this network as needs grew more acute and as urgency ran up against schools’ built-in bureaucracies and resources.

Is it fair to ask schools to serve all these roles? More to the point, is it good policy? Is it wise?

Even our nation’s debate over so-called critical race theory (now a thoroughly misappropriated term) points to what the public assumes about schools’ abilities: Believing that schools are capable of widespread indoctrination implicitly means believing that they possess an extraordinary power to teach these things coherently, even though the evidence suggests that core reading, math, and science instruction, even within the same school, lacked cohesion from grade to grade before the pandemic.

So, here I ask: Is it fair to ask schools to serve all these roles? More to the point, is it good policy? Is it wise?

School systems are by the very way they’re set up—via local boards with built-in turnover—slow to adapt to new roles. If society expects schools to take them on, we need to consider how to do it well.

The expanding role of schools into the largest social-welfare providers in the country is not a new phenomenon, according to education historians like Campbell Scribner, who teaches at the University of Maryland.

They point out that the transformation of U.S. schools from centers of teaching and learning into places that serve social-welfare functions accelerated between 1900 and 1930, even as other national policies like universal health care did not gain traction.

This is partly the result of the intellectual foundations of U.S. welfare policy, which were—and continue to be—structured by centuries-old ideas of dividing the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. Children fall into the first category—so much so that many programs, from the first cash-aid welfare program in 1935 through the recently expanded Child Tax Credit, are directly aimed at them.

Most of these school-based additions, like health centers, nurses, and social workers, have ultimately proved to be broadly popular with the public, even though they were all controversial at the time.

Less commonly understood, though, is that schools didn’t shed the responsibilities they already had during this expansion. And as politicians have scaled back supports for other social programs, the resulting challenges—drug epidemics, vaping, gun violence, severe weather events, a pandemic—have been foisted by default on schools.

The massive decline in referrals to child-welfare agencies during the pandemic testifies to the extent to which schools play an important role in protecting children via the multiple lines of view they have on them. But this surveillance cuts both ways, too, as the debate about school policing and racism in schools underscores.

If anything, the pandemic added yet another duty to the school district’s roster, that of epidemiologist. At least initially, state officials passed the buck on issues like masking and social distancing, forcing 14,000 districts with little health experience to make consequential health choices—and to endure furious backlash.

What is the best way to integrate academics and social services?

If you have gotten this far, you probably agree with me that it’s imperative, 18 months after COVID-19 changed the world, to consider anew the fundamental question of what schools are for.

We might, as a starting point, agree that academic learning should be their key function. And we might also agree that students will face difficulty learning if they are not fed, clothed, and nurtured. But we have to think about how schools can do all that they do sustainably and effectively, particularly as they cope with more mandates and expectations from legislators.

For a while, there was a trend both in the federal government and in cities toward interagency collaboration to coordinate an expanding roster of services. These do not, to put it frankly, have a great track record because of the siloed nature of agencies.

In one continually infuriating example, the U.S. departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development still do not agree on a common definition for homelessness, which means cities cannot serve the same populations via the two different funding streams.

Perhaps the most promising model is actually a bottom-up one.

The community schools movement aims to build academic and social-service partnerships on school campuses. And a recent review of 19 studies examining the approach found that on balance, the approach seems to produce academic benefits.

But the research also found that there’s no “concrete recipe” for how to structure these partnerships in ways that consistently produce results, no clear road map on how to deploy funding or personnel. (It’s a truism in education to say that we know the “what” but often lack the “how.” In this case, it applies perfectly.)

I was feeling quite blue about all this as I was researching, but I’m reminded that public schools are also resilient. The culture-war discussions and disagreements about how to reopen safely may be loud right now, but parents generally do value schools’ expansive roles and give their own schools good marks even during the pandemic.

The split among Black and white parents on their trust in schools, however, is a warning sign that this trust is not automatic. It must be carefully nurtured.

The funding is a turning point that we can either build on or one we can waste.

We have an opportunity to do that through the extraordinary $123 billion federal recovery package for schools. The funding is a turning point that we can either build on or one we can waste.

It’s a symbolically important investment, because it signals that there’s still a commitment to public schools. But it’s not really a solution to the definitional problem I’ve been discussing here, so much as it is a stopgap. It could create new dependencies—or expectations—if districts aren’t careful.

At bottom, districts will need to invest in efforts that they can sustain—or use the funding, in part, to launch partnerships with local social-service agencies to make their new investments stretch. They’ll need to devise some kind of organizing structure that doesn’t run up against the silos and dysfunction I’ve outlined above. And they’ll need to begin with an honest assessment of what their schools can do now and what they’ll need help doing in the future.

I know what your question is, and, no, I don’t know what this structure should look like or how it should be governed or staffed.

I do know, though, that it’s imperative to start thinking about one. Because the pandemic won’t be the last major crisis to strain schools—and I, for one, want them to be strong enough to outlast the next one.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2021 edition of Education Week as What Is The Purpose of School?

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