Why Public Education Is Different From Other Public Goods
At the risk of abusing the rule of thumb that we Leaguers don’t have to abide by the strictures of journalistic timeliness, I’m going to riff off of a Freddie deBoer post from last summer. You’ve been warned.
Here’s Freddie face-palming at the obloquy over Obama’s decision to send his kids to private schools:
This is what Obama is doing: he’s a) paying for his children to attend an expensive private school and b) opposing public subsidies of other people doing the same. In other words, he is defending the right to pay for something with private funds while opposing using public funds to pay for the same. You can agree or disagree with that on the merits, but that is hypocrisy? Huh:?
As far as voucher hypocrisy goes, I think Freddie is right. It’s eminently reasonable to oppose vouchers, then turn around and enroll your daughters in private schools. But does it also say something about Obama’s commitment to public education if his children attend private schools? I think so.
The realization of public education’s promise as an egalitarian, opportunity-augmenting, democracy-enhancing institution essentially requires schools to be a melange of varying classes, races, and ethnicities. It asks more of citizens than simple pecuniary support. It asks them to actually send their kids to public schools so this lofty ideal can be instantiated. (It also requires curriculum and pedagogy that fosters democratic citizens, but that’s for another post.) If some choose not to do so, that’s fine. But if you purport to support a public good, your actions and decisions shouldn’t hamper the effectiveness of said public good.
This standard is a higher bar for public school backers, to be sure; public education is fundamentally different from other public goods. Take public transportation. While I regard public transportation as a prudent investment—it cuts down on carbon emissions, enhances freedom of movement, and replaces the monotony of driving—its goal of efficiently transporting riders from Point A to Point B isn’t undermined if ethnic and class amalgamation is absent. The virtues of diverse ridership and shared experience notwithstanding, they’re not needed to achieve the central purpose: getting a group of people somewhere.
In contrast, a successful public education system involves more than the public pooling its resources (and its aims are much more complex than public transportation). A successful system also needs to pool its students. Teachers only have so much time and energy. If their classrooms are saturated with low SES, high-need students, it’s basically inevitable that some needy pupils won’t receive the requisite personal attention—not because of instructor indolence, but because of the constraints time imposes. So too with the social services and counseling most schools—especially resource poor low-income schools—can realistically offer. There are exceptions to this rule. Some high-poverty schools perform quite well. Generally, though, segregated and high-poverty schools don’t produce good outcomes. Aside from the purely academic benefits of desegregation or income-mixing, cross-group interaction is an important component of a robust, democratic education. (Charter schools, which I’ve endorsed with some qualifications, have a tendency to segment and segregate. The good ones still represent such a small portion of the nation’s public schools, though, that I think this tendency is outweighed by their positive aspects. More than any other factor, residential segregation impedes the actualization of diverse schools.)
I witnessed the pitfalls of homogeneity in my middle school and high school years. Beginning in eighth grade, students around the district who scored well on tests were given the option to attend a magnet school for a portion of the day. The result was simple: Most of the academically gifted kids—who were predominately white and well-off—went to the magnet school for most of their required academic classes. (I was one.) Unsurprisingly, the “home” schools were then left with a larger proportion of less wealthy, less privileged kids (this in a district that already was and is pretty poor). Even more perniciously, you had parents who wouldn’t countenance sending their children to the neighborhood public school because of its reputation for educating reprobates and miscreants, not just supposedly squeaky-clean middle- and upper-class kids.
In both cases the actions of self-interested actors had a deleterious effect on tons of other students’ education—especially that of the poor and marginalized.
Public education is, at its heart, a radical and beautiful idea. It’s not merely that everyone should have access to education, and that we should all pay for it. It’s the idea that children from across class, racial, ethnic, and other boundaries can come together and work and learn together. They don’t merely learn the knowledge and skills that school teaches them, but how to operate in a democracy where everyone is not alike. Seeing that a multicultural, pluralistic society can work—not perfectly, not without angst, not without effort—is an essential part of a civic education. And that knowledge contributes to the understanding that society is a supporter of individual flourishing, not a threat to it, and that what ultimately benefits the individual is what benefits all of us.
Instead, what we presently have is a stratified education system—for the reasons I outlined above and many, many more—in which the privileged are further advantaged. That certainly won’t change until some champions of public schools do more than simply pay their taxes.