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The changing nature of public education

Randall F. Clemens

John is a mechanic who lives on the less affluent side of town. His three children all attend public schools. Last year, John Jr., his oldest child, started high school. After the first semester, his grades dropped. Normally an A or B type of student, he seemed apathetic about receiving Cs and Ds. The father, after some investigation, discovered that John Jr. had been bullied by some of his older peers. To complicate the matter, the peers were gang members and caused trouble to the teachers as well.

John went to his son's teachers. Some were responsive and helpful. Others were not. After two more months, he noticed his son becoming detached. He slept in, argued with his two younger siblings, and always wanted to be left alone. The concerned father consulted with the ninth grade administrator, who suggested John Jr. was just going through growing pains as he transitioned from middle to high school. The father left the meeting more dejected than before.

John, who was an avid supporter of traditional public education, decided it was time to explore other alternatives. The well being of his son was most important, and he needed a better educational setting. A week later, he enrolled his son in a nearby charter school. The school’s teacher to student ratio was far smaller than the traditional school and the students were more eager to learn. 

Does this scenario sound familiar? It should. It is occurring in cities across the country.

Spokespeople for educational change often reduce reform options to forced dichotomies. We are supposed to pick from a menu of either / or options: neighborhood or charter schools, democracy or capitalism, test- or student-centered learning, and on and on. As the above scenario points out, the choice for parents is often much simpler and based on finding the best possible school.

This is the last of my blogs about education as a public good. I will not belabor my point because I think the majority of readers believe, like I do, that the nature of public education as a public good is changing. The change is neither good nor bad; it is just different than before. We cannot approach education as Dewey or Thorndike did. In fact, we cannot approach education as we did even five years ago. 

Individuals who argue that neighborhood schools are inherently good and support democracy and charter schools are inherently bad and support capitalism are arguing for an ideal that has never existed. Neighborhood schools as a whole have always struggled to educate all of the students in the neighborhood whether those students have been low-income, Native American, African American, or Latino, or immigrant. Sure, we have outstanding cases of neighborhood schools helping a diverse mix of students. But, we also have those same examples in regard to charter schools.

We have innumerable opportunities to improve schools and neighborhoods and those opportunities do not easily divide between democracy or capitalism, neighborhood or charter schools, or whichever other dichotomies a few outspoken reformers tell us from which we need to choose. Parents such as John are not interested in choosing sides or getting involved in debates about ideology; they want the best possible educations for their children. The nature of public education has changed, and it is time to update the ways in which we discuss, think about, and design education as a public good.