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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability

Defining Public Schools

Public schools, like the publics Knight Abowitz has described, also have real (descriptive) and ideal (normative) aspects. They have descriptive attributes of form, which include being funded by taxpayer dollars and being open to all students in a community without stipulation. While there is much to celebrate about the ideal of public schools, the ways they have played out in reality have sometimes fallen short or have been deeply disappointing. The formalist attributes of taxpayer funding and inclusive enrollment have been met to varying degrees, with a troublesome history of funding inequities across schools as well as practices that discriminate against some populations, particularly against racial minority groups, English language learners, and students with disabilities. And while public schools are taxpayer funded and open to all, the voices of many taxpayers, especially poor parents of color, have often been overlooked, suppressed, or silenced in the governance of schools.

I recognize that the ideal school is itself a product of ongoing collective struggle and one that must face the ways in which schools have failed to fulfill important aspects of the ideals across time.1 I do not wish to be naive or to look past the significant failures of our schools to achieve their formalist goals. But, as I will explain later in this book, those failures should not be enough to foreclose the potential of improved schools. Focusing on their ideal aspects, as I do in this section, can help us move in that direction. Emphasizing the formalist aspects of public education and its shortcomings often fails to convey the public functions served by the schools in both real and ideal ways—to encapsulate what schools actually do and can do to serve the needs and interests of citizens.

When I call for supporting public schools, I’m not calling for us to celebrate what schools have been or currently are, especially in light of the atrocities of inequity and disempowerment that they have facilitated. Instead, I am calling for us to form the sorts of publics that can bring greatly improved public education to fruition, acknowledging and addressing its past harms along the way. In talking about the ideal, I do not want to eclipse or ignore the real, messy, and despicable elements of public education, but rather want to use the ideal to help unite us and to address real problems and construct solutions. Let’s acknowledge how seriously flawed public schools have been and work together to craft what they might become, driven by a pragmatic spirit of hope.2

Certain interests served by public schools are private in nature, including the economic goals of some parents and students described earlier. But ideally, many of the interests are public in nature, aligned with achieving a mutually beneficial way of life, whether that be one consensually developed through a community with closely shared ideals (under a civic republican notion of democracy, for example) or one where individuals pursue their own liberties while simultaneously upholding those of others (under a classical liberal notion of democracy). Public schools, guided by state constitutional directives, should strive to educate all children adequately and equitably, while also promoting the broader interests of the public by maintaining key values (such as an overarching commitment to liberty) that many publics uphold across time and location. Public education is necessarily a normative and political endeavor where decisions are made about the best ways of life for children now and in the future. Those decisions arise from plural and diverse publics, which require children to learn how to operate within them to the extent that they learn to respect differences and deliberate across them.

High-quality public schools ideally function as a location and a collection of diverse people united in shared experience and deliberation about public goods. Simultaneously, the schools inculcate children into ways of life that sustain debate about and growth in the very aspects of the public goods that children learn about and construct within their walls. For example, public schools may choose to foster the types of skills needed to support our nationstate through a competent military and a knowledgeable workforce while also developing within children the ability to engage in critical discussions about military use and analysis of shifts in workforce needs.

Publics come together to shape and determine educational goals, sometimes doing so within the physical space of the school at school board meetings and other community gatherings. Indeed, the physical space of the school as one that is held in common and open to the people is an important element of public schools. The “public” has a strong history in the work of James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other early Americans who prioritized public deliberation and set aside physical locations where people could gather together to share their ideas and work together to craft public goods. These spaces included schools, which Jefferson sought to establish as a revolutionary act. The land ordinance acts of the late 1700s set aside land specifically for the construction of schools, which were then established during the common school period in the mid-1800s. Common schools, which taught a common curriculum and shared morality geared toward producing good citizens and developing a strong democracy, were open to all people and became central elements of communities, although many wrongly excluded or segregated African Americans.

Although some citizens are unaware of and others are deterred by visible security systems at entrances, schools physically continue to be used in these ways, formally for public meetings and discussions, and informally as gymnasiums, playgrounds, sports fields, and auditoriums where people come together to talk, play games, participate in performances, and enjoy art. There, people construct community, making connections with their neighbors. These physical spaces are important to maintain as fewer spaces are available for common purposes and more of them are increasingly privatized, which may entail imposing admission fees, excluding certain people, or prioritizing others. It is also important to openly proclaim their public role so that other people can appreciate their value in sustaining democratic living.

Importantly, functionally public schools are not just places that prepare children for public life in the future. As highlighted in the epigraph of this book, public schools are places where citizens emerge as they enact publicness. Schools can be places where a wide array of individuals come together and engage in practices of democracy. They are places where children learn how to exchange and respond to the ideas of others as they balance their own individual needs with needs in their communities. They come to see one another as capable of reasonable discourse, developing an important element of trust to guide future deliberations. And they are places where the aspects and quality of democratic life can be discussed and changed. They are places where children learn to be a public, often in the midst of participating in publics. When the future does come, graduates of public schools help to improve publics.

Some formally public schools fail to fulfill both the real and ideal aspects of functioning public education. Realistically, they may not provide an equitable education for all children or they may fail to function in ways that are inclusive, mirror or support the diversity present in the surrounding society, or aim at common ends. Alternatively, some formally private schools may be successful at functioning as public schools if, as philosopher Eamonn Callan suggests, they have an ethos that is sufficiently pluralistic.3 This includes admission criteria, pedagogy, and content that do not privilege one group of people over another, but instead allow for a range of perspectives and lifestyles. Indeed, some of these nominally private schools may do a better job of functioning realistically in public ways and more inclusively serving children than nominally public schools do.4 As Callan adds, “Their success in educating children from disadvantaged groups and organizing school life around institutional norms that affirm ‘a shared responsibility for building a just and caring society’ stands in sharp contrast with the rather dismal failures of much de jure common schooling in these regards"5

Though dated now, one example that affirms the potential public functioning of private schools is a significant study of Catholic schools by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland, which found that many Catholic schools are treated as voluntary communities and are guided by a pedagogical philosophy intended to “foster an appreciation for their social connectedness and individual responsibility to advance social justice; and to stimulate those critical dispositions of mind and heart essential to the sustenance of a convivial democratic society"6 In these cases, the authors conclude, “This is not a narrow, divisive, or sectarian education but, rather, an education for democratic life in a postmodern society. From our vantage point, it is difficult to envision a much stronger claim to the title of ‘common school.’ "7

These private schools suggest that we should not be too quick to limit our vision of public schools to those that are, at minimum, formally public. However, many private schools do adhere to selective admissions, promote religious doctrine that privileges or disparages certain ways of life, aim to reproduce a loyal community of believers or a class of people,8 or limit the information children receive about viable worldviews, thereby failing to offer the pluralism or liberal autonomy central to democratic public life.9 This is most obvious in fundamentalist religious schools that seek to reproduce their communities and guide children toward a narrow range of acceptable ways of living. Because formally public schools are by design and by law held to open admission, nondiscrimination, and liberal choosing of one’s own best life, they are better positioned to function publicly and to achieve the aims of democracy in both real and ideal ways, as I describe later in this chapter. Nonetheless, our focus for my argument should be on the schools, whether formally public or private, that are functionally public.

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