Thursday, March 15, 2018

10 Reasons To Support Public School

You may have missed the fact that this is National Public Schools Week, or you may have noticed it on Monday, but now it's Thursday and who can really remember these things for the entire week? And, of course, public schools do not have giant slick PR departments to create polished promotional materials for such a week. You might think that the United States Department of Education might make some noise-- any noise-- in support of public education, but over the past couple of decades, the department has moved from uninterested in public education over to openly hostile toward it.

Public education has become a political orphan in this country. So it's important to take the time to remember why US public education is actually a great thing. Here are some reasons.

1) Public schools are student-centered.

In many countries, public education is simply a system for telling children what they get to be when they grow up. Does Pat want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a civil engineer? Too bad-- the school system has determined that Pat should be an elevator repair person, and so that's what Pat gets to do.

But in our system, Pat gets to chart a course and the public school system is obliged to help Pat steer in that direction. Our system is not created to whip up a batch of employees for businesses, and it's not set up to tell Pat what the future is supposed to hold. It is set up to allow, aid and support Pat in making Pat's own choices.

2) Public schools are publically owned and operated.

The local taxpayers fund schools and elect the people who will run them. The taxpayers own the buildings and pay the salaries of the people who work in them. That means that public schools, unlike any other private business, cannot be gutted and squeezed for profit at the expense of a long, sustainable life (like, say, Toys R Us). That also means that the taxpayers get to ask any questions they like and know anything they want to know about how their money is being spent.

3) Public schools are enduring community institutions.

While some charters and private schools may just close down on a moment's notice, public schools are an enduring part of their community, remaining even if it's not profitable for them to stay open. In many communities, public schools are one of the most stable institutions.

And people believe in them. Yes, people grouse and complain, and yes people want their school taxes to be roughly $1.50. But when it's time to do something to help children. to improve their lives, to make them better able to cope with one problem or another, who do we always turn to? Public schools. Even when public schools fail an entire community, we don't hear demands like "Well, just release our children from any requirement to go to school at all." No-- people demand that they get the public schools they are supposed to have.

4) Public schools are responsible for all students, no matter what.

A public school system cannot pick and choose its students. It has a responsibility, both moral and legal, to provide an education to every student, even the ones who are difficult or expensive to teach.  It's easier to educate just some students, to pick and choose the ones you'd like to work with, the ones that barely need you at all. But to educate every single child is a far bolder and broader mission-- and it's the one we've given to public schools.

5) Public schools are the last great salad.

So much of current society is sorted and gated, with people making sure they associate only with the people they want to associate. There is certainly plenty of sorting of neighborhoods and communities that is manifested in community schools-- but public schools still feature the kind of mixing and interaction that we no longer see anywhere else in our country.

6) Public schools are a glorious mess.

Because public schools represent and respond to the interests of so many different people, those schools are messy. Many varied programs, teachers, activities, and classes all exist under one roof. It can seem unfocused and scatter-shot, but that's the beauty of it; the alternative is a regimented, orderly approach that squelches variety and outliers, and that approach benefits nobody.

7) Public schools are remarkably efficient.

Strapped for resources, public school systems must make every dollar count. There are no $500 toilet seats in public school restrooms, no $250 pencils in classrooms, and few districts that run twelve different buildings where one will do.

8) Public schools are staffed by trained professionals who devote their lives to the work.

It sucks that teachers aren't paid like rock stars, but we can say this-- nobody is in teaching just for the money, glory and fame. Nobody is hating the classroom but thinking, "Well, I still need to make enough money for a second Lexus." Public school teachers are neither martyrs nor saints, but they are in the classroom because they want to be there.

9) Public schools help create citizens

That's no small thing. s noted above, many educational systems simply aspire to create functional employees-- and that's it. A little vocational training, and out the door you go. But for democracy (or a republic style version thereof) to survive and flourish, you need a nation of educated people.

10) The promise of public education

By now, you have already talked back to this piece, telling your screen about all the exceptions you can think of, all the ways that public schools failed at the eight traits I listed above. And you're right-- public schools have failed in many ways over the decades, from the failure of institutional racism to the failure to fully embrace every single child. In our large and varied history, we have fallen short many times.

But here's the thin. You can only fall short of a goal if you have a goal. US public schools aspire to do great things, which means every day of every year, we are trying to rise and advance, to improve and grow. In this, we are truly American-- this country started by setting high standards and goals for itself, and it has spent centuries trying to live up to them. But if our goals were simply "I want to make myself rich" or "I want to have power over Those People" then we would have no hope of improving. If public schools set goals like "Just try to turn a profit this quarter" or "Get high scores on that one test" then we would have no hope, no prospect for greatness ever.

Our dream is to provide every single child with the support and knowledge and skills and education that will allow each to pursue the life they dream of, to become more fully themselves, to understand what it means to be human in the world. We do not always live up to that dream, but US public schools have lifted up millions upon millions of students, elevated communities, raised up a country.

So take a moment this week to honor and acknowledge National Pubic Schools Week. And if you have two moments, use one to send a message to your elected representatives, asking them to acknowledge this week as well. 


  1. I think more rural school settings are what you speak of. The closer you get to urban areas (I'm outside of DC) it is ALL about the scores on the many tests that are administered and it's all about how to get those glorious scores on those BS tests. Competition is alive and well.

  2. Thank you for this, Peter ... again. I'm in awe of your energy, compassion, and dedication. This consistently insightful and provoking blog, a full teaching load, and twins. Dang, whatever you're having for breakfast, I want some of that.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I will be honest, I came into this blog with a bit of an eye-roll, because I do not support public education. I think it is part of a system that snuffs the curiosity out of children – a cynical view for sure. However, I decided to read your post to expose myself to some alternative views. After reading, I found that the points you made are typical of what I’ve heard perpetuated and show a complete lack of understanding of what it means to demand for something to be public, and a lack of understanding of what cost means to people. I hope you’ll give me the sincere attention I gave you and consider these counter-arguments.

    1. Public Schools are Student Centered
    This is simply a flawed compare-and-contrast because it fails to isolate the essential element you are advocating: public i.e. state sponsored education. Comparing two state sponsored education systems, one being relatively better than the other, darkly authoritarian system, does not support moralizing about state sponsored education in and of itself. Your point, as it appears on page, only indicates that liberating education from strict state direction is preferable for the individual.
    2. Public Schools are Publically Owned and Operated
    Taxes are forcibly taken from the public to pay for schools, they don’t have ownership over it. They get increments of choice. Toys R Us failed because they became inferior in the eyes of their patrons who stopped going there. People send their kids to private school, even after already paying taxes for public schools, specifically so they can control their education.
    3. Public Schools are Enduring Community Institutions
    The implication of this statement is that they aren’t allowed to fail for failing their patrons. They thrive because we are obligated, no matter what, to keep funding them. What good things could have been funded in their place? Cost means losing something. Have you thought about what opportunities were lost to this failing institution? The U.S. was not thrust out of poverty and difficult life in the industrial age because of enduring/obligatory community institutions...
    4. Public Schools are Responsible for All Students, No Matter What
    Public schools have abandoned many of their students, the ones with the most potential to excel, because all of the forces of the system direct it to cater to the lowest common denominator. This is the way of most state sponsored programs. Every action has a sacrifice. The fight between those who preach to authorize the state and those who fight against it is a fight between suffering you can see and suffering you can’t see. It’s the suffering you can’t see that allows your empathies to push in the direction you go and preach.
    5. Public Schools are the Last Great Salad
    I’ll start by reminding you that it was local governments and voters that zoned and red-lined to isolate minorities from wealthier white Americans. Authorizing a police state sounds good when you preach controlling it with your superior morals, but it bends to bad people too. Secondly, I find it really hard to believe that public schools don’t represent the same inner-segregation as we see elsewhere. But this is a huge subject to tackle honestly and in short, anecdotally I don’t believe this to be true.

  4. 6. Public Schools are a Glorious Mess
    Have you ever appreciated and been fascinated by anything you’ve seen walking around in “private” life? Have you been to a market, minus images of Black Friday, and marveled at the ingenuity of humanity to orchestrate and problem solve? What about that ever represented a “regimented, orderly approach that squelches variety and outliers?” Now imagine the public school, which is clearly the regimented, orderly approach that squelches variety and outliers. We are talking about a nationally established bureaucracy unresponsive to the needs of individuals and outliers without years of legislative battles and corrections without nuance in themselves.
    7. Public Schools are Remarkably Efficient
    This is one of your most unsubstantiated claims. The only thing that can establish efficiency is people acting in a market. It’s based on relative values and conditions. For a child who shouldn’t be in a public school, there is hardly anything they could do that is less efficient. Again: variables and outliers not being met in a public institution.
    8. Public Schools are Staffed by Trained Professionals Who Devote Their Lives to the Work.
    Thank you. Despite all of the objections to your reasoning here, I appreciate your choice to do this work. I have had great teachers who made an impact on my life.
    9. Public Schools Help Create Citizens
    Education creates citizens. If a school contributes to that, amazing. In the absence of public schools draining funds and incredible amounts of time, I wonder what kinds of customized and innovative education systems would exist in their place – perhaps created by the individuals you mentioned currently on the job.
    10. The Promise of Public Education
    The dream of education for those who care to seek it is an important one. We can agree that we have lofty motives for a peaceful, empathetic world. But we clearly don’t agree on public education being a helper versus a hindrance to that mission. I suggest giving a lot more attention to the incredible innovations and free sources of education charging our entire community forward. The real passions are the ones people find on their own and pursue out of raw interest. I’d be interested if you wrote about interviewing former students regarding their experiences reading fiction in school and then out of school and see which they enjoyed more and which influenced them more.

    1. I appreciate the time and thought that went into your response, even as I disagree with mostly all of it. But thank you for taking the time to articulate rather than just throw stones.