A clear, potent history and defense of public schools

The arguments over the confirmation of the new secretary of education were about something bigger: which government institutions benefit which citizens.

Source: Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools? – The New York Times

A few days ago, I read the luminous article (linked above) in the online Times by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Magazine staff writer. (I’d guess, therefore, it will be appearing in the print edition this Sunday.)

In her fascinating article, Ms. Hannah-Jones narrates powerfully and clearly the history of public schools (goes back to Greek and Roman civilizations; who knew? I didn’t), the philosophy underlying public schooling, what happened to public schools after Brown v. Topeka and what is happening to them now, i.e., they’re under attack from the usual suspects.

Both my parents and nearly all their friends were public school teachers. My brother, sister and I all went to public schools through high school. Our teachers were nearly uniformly dedicated, erudite, good-humored and beloved.

As I’ve written here, in public schools I learned more of fundamental significance than I have since.

The aggressive, thoroughly dishonorable advance of charter schools has made me screaming mad. Often. (As you might suspect, the Koch Bros are involved: killing public schools–and teachers’ unions–are a huge part of their Final Solution to Democracy.)

(The one thing Ms. Hannah-Jones does not mention in her article is teachers’ unions and how the tacit purpose of the charter school “movement”–promoted by very rich corporate people like Betsy DeVos and the Koch Brothers–is the destruction of unions. [Oh, gee–you didn’t think it was to “better educate” poor kids, did you?])

To give you an idea of this article’s potency, here are Ms. Hannah-Jones’s final paragraphs. I’ve bolded a couple of especially thrilling sentences:

Even when they fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit. The for-profit charters DeVos helped expand have not provided an appreciably better education for Detroit’s children, yet they’ve continued to expand because they are profitable — or as Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former education superintendent, said, “In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”

Democracy works only if those who have the money or the power to opt out of public things choose instead to opt in for the common good. It’s called a social contract, and we’ve seen what happens in cities where the social contract is broken: White residents vote against tax hikes to fund schools where they don’t send their children, parks go untended and libraries shutter because affluent people feel no obligation to help pay for things they don’t need. “The existence of public things — to meet each other, to fight about, to pay for together, to enjoy, to complain about — this is absolutely indispensable to democratic life,” Honig says.

If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix. The vast multiracial, socioeconomically diverse defense of public schools that DeVos set off may show that we have not yet given up on the ideals of the public — and on ourselves.

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