Teaching Opinion

Wanted: A Campaign to Preserve ‘Public’ Schools

By Deborah Meier — November 04, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier writes again to Leo E. Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Dear Leo,

So, how are we to both defend and critique the “existing” public educational system, as you and I have forever been doing, while on the defensive when it comes to unions and public’ness? We’ve even shown what it “could” look like, for ordinary kids, well within the public arena and with unionized teachers. We even (mistakenly) seemed on the brink of a grand expansion of such schools—Expeditionary Learning, Coalition of Essential Schools, et al. We got caught in the headlights as another train came rolling down the tracks we were laying.

Now we’re facing a different and even more dangerous idea. One that overwhelms all the others: the rapid elimination of public education itself (and with it, teachers’ unions, parent voice, and much more). It’s always possible for us to argue about the Common Core State Standards, or standardized testing, or school and class sizes. But it won’t mean much once we no longer have a system where public voices count. We “control” Walmarts by either shopping in them or not. The odds of creating collective bargaining as we know it are not great in any privatized sector. Soon our only “voice” in education will be choosing, or consumerism; and consumerism is not the model for democracy.

But, above all, schools are at the hub of what constitutes a community. We have to put this issue into a separate category. Charters (and vouchers) no longer have any of the positive meanings writ large that you or I or Al Shanker, or Joe Nathan, etc. had in mind. (Even though there is a small, healthy minority of charters that are “mom and pops"—much like the alternative high schools were in New York City or the Pilots in Boston—each large enough to have fit any average-sized city.)

Yes, context matters. The “free schoolers” who wanted schooling to be voluntary (like John Holt, whom I admired greatly) had a point—IF we were living in a society in which equality was the norm. But in the context of 20th- and 21st-century capitalism, it’s quite a different matter.

Ditto for high-stakes standardized testing and the common core, although I think I’d be against them even in a relatively benign society in which power rested firmly in everyone’s hands.

Given this analysis, I’m worried about our spending too much time on testing and curricular issues! Including my favorites—social justice, inquiry, graduation by performance, learning to love a good story, and even, uh-oh, democracy in our schools.

I want radically different kinds of public schools, but once the powerful get their hands on all the public money that goes into America’s education industry, they won’t give it up—until “the revolution”! We can’t wait for that! We have to stop them. Now.

We must build, I think, a single-minded and united movement to preserve the public in public education. Simultaneously we can put forth ideas about how such a system could better serve the least of us. No. 1: Give all children schools like those the rich send their kids to, in terms of the kind of material they study, the material resources they have readily at hand, their small class sizes, the many extracurricular and after-school opportunities, not to mention, their teachers’ salaries,.

Did you know that teachers in the United States are at the very top when it comes to the number of hours they spend directly working with children? By top, of course, I mean bottom. They teach far, far more hours a week and weeks a year than teachers elsewhere. And we are far from the top on class sizes, salaries, etc. (See the National Center on Education and the Economy, NCEE.org, graphs on International Education Benchmarking, Oct. 27, 2014.)

And none of the nations we are in competition with have gotten rid of public education. (Nor have those nations we’re outsourcing work to!)

Today we’re first in the world when it comes to privatizing virtually everything in sight. Democracy is an idea that set us apart once. It apparently worked OK in defeating fascism and Communism. But we seem prepared to let it go when it comes to educating ourselves for sustaining and expanding democracy. In fact, we’re letting it slip through our fingers in a great many other domains, like prisons and military details. Are firefighters and cops next?

We’ve had a two-class system since the beginning—one kind of education to prepare tomorrow’s ruling class, and another to ... We need only one kind: a system that, community-by-community empowers its citizens to rule the United States. We’ve barely ever discussed such a lofty, but essential, idea. That was the “essential” in John Dewey’s Progressive ed, not room arrangement.

So, how do we stop this dream from slipping away entirely? How can we avoid having each family compete with everyone else’s children so that they might get one of those scarce places in the top 5 percent? “For, by, and of the people,” be damned.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.