When I decided to write about the purpose of public education, I assumed it would be an easy topic. As a teacher with 14 years of experience in the classroom, I have been lucky to observe the many benefits of public education firsthand. However, as I informally polled family, friends, and peers—from my sister-in-law who plans to home-school her children to friends who teach in charter schools to peers who teach in public schools all over the country—the varied and often passionately partisan responses I received were proof that the value of public education is a very polarizing topic.
Many people would agree that public education is valuable because it prepares young people for success in college or future careers. But others might think, as suggested by our nation’s secretary of education, that public education is a “dead end” and needs to be scaled back to make way for more “educational choice.”
Based on the results of a 2015 poll by Phi Delta Kappa on the public’s attitude toward public schools, it seems that my family’s and friends’ feelings—which range from diehard support to varying levels of skepticism about the efficacy of their local schools—are just a microcosm of wider American disagreements about education. The poll’s results show that Americans believe public schools should be tasked with academic preparation... or job-skills training... or the cultivation of democratic citizens. The versatility of ideas illustrates that reaching consensus on the purpose of public education is as easy as reaching consensus on the meaning of life. However, while it is difficult to get people to agree, those who were polled acknowledge that some form of public education is vital.
The Classroom Experience
Almost everyone in the United States experiences some formal education—and our time as students often shapes our perspectives about the system that produces us. I was raised in a suburban town in northern Colorado. My mom was a public school teacher, and both of my parents believed in the value of neighborhood public schools—not only for their children, but also for the local communities. They volunteered in those schools and were active advocates for district programs of all kinds.
As I think back on my time in a variety of school systems, I am grateful for the different kinds of learning I experienced. For college, I decided that I wanted a more intimate experience and attended a private school in Seattle that was roughly twice the size of my high school. Most of my classes were small, with roughly 15-20 students in my upper-level English courses. The college had a strict behavior code based in its Free Methodist roots, and I was surrounded by people from similar socioeconomic, political, and racial backgrounds. It was a very homogeneous experience, and I often felt like I was living in a bubble.
But when I decided to pursue my teaching certification and master’s degree at the University of Colorado at Denver, a large state school, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of my peers’ beliefs, experiences, and dreams. I got to know peers who had grown up in poverty and wanted to teach at-risk students to pay forward all the support their own teachers had given them. Our program intentionally placed us in high-needs public schools and trained us to foster quality learning experiences for all students.
The Problem With Choice
Many of my friends have started to have families of their own, and often ask me about the educational options that exist for their children. I feel a great responsibility to share my own experiences and ask them to consider what they value. Sending children to public school ensures that they will have a much broader educational experience that not only includes learning academic concepts and skills, but also the opportunity to meet people who are not like them—which research from the National Coalition on School Diversity shows is beneficial long past high school graduation.
I acknowledge that my beliefs are idealistic. Even Thomas Jefferson, who is often credited as being the first advocate of education for the masses, was a slave owner whose vision was limited to education for white men only.
However, his belief in education as an essential component of democracy is the foundation on which public education is built. If we could provide free, quality education for all citizens, think of the opportunities future generations would have.
The current presidential administration is suggesting that families need more choices for their students. What this amounts to is more opportunities to isolate and shelter children. A recent report from the Center on Education Policy found that students were “educated through a hodgepodge of mostly private institutions and arrangements” before the late 20th century.
According to the report, this resulted in limited options and inequality, caused by factors like geography, gender, and access to teachers. It was common for white children from wealthy families to have schools or instructors that prepared them for well-paying careers, while those who had little access found few opportunities for advancement; this created socioeconomic and racial divides that hurt our country for centuries and persist to this day. My fear is that a voucher system would perpetuate this inequity.
Our country cannot take these dangerous steps backwards.
The Next Step
I am the first to say that the public education system is not perfect as it currently exists. Access to quality instruction needs to be expanded, so that all students have the same opportunities to thrive. The process of improving public education will be arduous, but there are clear, initial steps we can take.
First, our country needs to revisit the “certain inalienable rights” promised to each of its citizens—not only for the sake of preserving the public school system, but also for the sake of ensuring an educated citizenry and a healthy democracy. It’s essential to consider what public services are necessary in order to provide equal access to opportunities to achieve health and happiness for all of the nation’s children. Second, we need to empower those most familiar with the system to lead the charge. Most importantly, we as citizens of this country need to engage in discussion about the value of education and consider how best to ensure that all kids are given the chance to learn.