Thursday, June 23, 2016

Attacking the Public in Public Education

Many parts of the attack on US public education have not been subtle or hard to detect. The refrain "our schools are failing" has been so steadily repeated for the past few decades that it is now accepted uncritically, independent of any evidence other than "Hey, I keep hearing people say it, so I guess it must be true." Now we hear it just tossed off as an aside, an assumption-- well, of course, public schools aren't any good.

In addition to attacking the reputation and quality of public schools, we've also heard an unending explicit and implicit attacks on the reputation of our nation's teachers. They're dummies with low SAT scores. They have the worst preparation of any college students. We'd be better off giving an ivy league grad five weeks of training and plunking them in a classroom.

All of these are an attack on the "education" part of "public education," a steady drip, drip, drip that tells us that the system that is supposed to educate is not doing a very good job of educating.

But there has been another steady attack, more subtle but increasingly successful, on the "public" part pf "public education."

The reformster refrain that the money should follow the student is one such attack-- it cuts the public out of the system, removing the voice of any taxpayer who doesn't have a child in school. The whole argument that choice-voucher systems should put all decision-making in the hands of parents makes a foundational assumption that education is not a public good, maintained by the public in the public space in order to deliver benefits to the public. Instead, it re-imagines education as a consumer good, created by a vendor and then handed off to the student while money changes hands. Where education might once have been viewed like air or water or other shared public resources, we're now encouraged to see it like a pizza or a toaster.

We can now start to see some of the side-effects of this view. When a public school is closed these days, it's not necessarily seen as a blow to the community, like the loss of a park or the pollution of a water supply. Instead, it's treated like a store closing, as if we just lost the Taco Bell on the corner, or the local K-Mart was closed up. It's a business decision made by someone who doesn't answer to the community, really pretty much out  of our hands, right?

More troubling, it gets us to a place where the community no longer feels the obligation, the assumption, that it has a responsibility to provide schools.

And so we can see a major school system like that of Erie, Pennsylvania, considering that maybe they should just stop offering high schools at all. Or the governor of New Jersey can suggest that we just spend the identical bare minimum on all students, and if that means that poor kids don't get any real schooling at all. Granted, that move was so outrageous that even longtime Christie apologist Tom Moran condemned it, but still-- to even suggest that we don't really need to bother making sure that we as a community, a state, a nation are getting the job done.

Which is another part of the assault. We don't need to make sure we're providing a public education because those charter schools will do it (maybe, for a while, for some students).

As with all things in public education, this has not happened in a vacuum. As a nation, we have moved steadily away from community responsibility for the public space. We don't want to live next to Those People, and we don't want to pay for their health care or their food or their housing. Politically, we are increasingly united by a belief that some people shouldn't count and torn apart by disagreements about who exactly the not-really-American don't-really-count people are. We want to privatize profit and move risk into the public sector.

Simply put, we don't want to take responsibility for any people except Our Own. You get what you can get, and if you can't get much, well, you should have thought of that before you decided to be poor (or not white).

So it should be no surprise that the most damaging attack on public education has been on the very idea of an education provided by the public for every member of the public, the better to maintain and improve the public space we all share and care for the public resource for which we share responsibility. We have instead been encouraged to think of education as a new couch or a bag of cheese doodles, a commodity that you get access to (or not) depending on the deal that you work out on your own.


  1. I think it would be useful to define what you mean by a public good. Education in a school does not qualify as a public good using the definition of public good used by economists. What is the definition used here?

  2. Teachingeconomist just made your case, Peter.

  3. Martha,

    Perhaps you can define the term "public good" as it is used in this post.

    1. Oh, please, TE, we've been through all this so many times before. Economist definitions of "public good" have nothing to do with reality and are just stupid when we're talking about reality. Obviously, except to an economist, "public good" means "good for the public" or useful and good for everyone and society in general.

    2. Rebbecca,

      I don't think it can mean "good for the public" or "good for everyone" when you are arguing that the government should produce a "public good". After all, food is "good for the public" and "good for everyone", but given the history of collectivization in agriculture, no one in their right mind could think that the government should produce the food consumed in a country. Instead what we do is have private food production and give people vouchers that they can use to buy the food.

      To an economist, a public good is one that can not be easily produced in a private market because people can consume the good without paying for it. Ask the music recording industry how things are going for them now that recorded music is not excludable. Talk to environmentalists about how non-exclubility is leading the the extinction of fish species from over fishing.

    3. Not to get all meta, but this is exactly the sort of thing that makes me want to put you in the time out chair, te. This is not a good faith attempt to understand what other people are saying-- this is just spin and wordplay to try to position yourself as being Right.

      First, it doesn't further conversation because you're not trying to understand what they say-- you're just trying to interpret in whatever manner allows you to "win."

      Second, you're not very good at it.

      Do better, or take a break. And no-- we won't be having a discussion about this here in the comments section.

    4. Coincidentally but apropos of your question, FB just resurrected my post from a year ago:
      Last night, I watched a NOVA program on animal intelligence that noted the species (humans, chimps, parrots, corvids) which have the largest brains for their body size and the most flexible problem-solving ability are all SOCIAL. They have long periods of childhood dependence and development, requiring collective care and survival strategies. Yet, the currently popular philosophy of Ayn Rand denies our interdependence — as well as the strength and power it confers. At relatively trivial cost, we can collectively provide tremendous assets for the use of all which we could never afford individually. Our traditional public schools were one such asset, providing a path to upward mobility and personal development for all, to the benefit of our entire society. We have been systematically destroying that incalculable asset.

  4. I was thinking about this as I watched the new season of Orange is the New Black. The move towards privatizing prisons is in the same vein. Thanks as always for your insightful postings Peter!

  5. There is actually a movement among a wealthier contingent of suddenly interested school "reformers" that you can't teach the poor (a very caste-based theory brought from countries outside the US) and thus you should stop wasting your money on them; you should simply rule them out and spend your money on those who are teachable.

  6. We have to find a way to restore the idea of the public good or we are finished, and soon (in historical time). The only chance I see is involving young people in genuine collective experience which can give them a realistic, personal sense of the value and meaning of the common good. Student resistance to ed. reform is the ultimate opportunity, the mother of all teachable moments. Ed. resistance leadership, such as it exists, should actively promote and help organize student resistance. The act of fighting privatization could, by process and outcome, revitalize citizenship and the idea of the public good. Long past time to wake up the sleeping giant. It's their future more than ours.