What makes public schools public?

Only one reader posted an answer to this question, but it was a good one: “A value, held in a common trust, to provide educational opportunities to every student.”

There is much I like about that response. Opportunity is not result. I remember one evening when my mother, a talented and dedicated 6th grade teacher, came home fuming from a faculty meeting. The topic of the day had been performance objectives, then, believe it or not, a fresh new idea. My mother did not shrink from the idea that she should have goals for her students, or that she should give her all to helping them get there. But —

“Do you know what performance objectives really mean?” she snarled at me.

I don’t think I tried to interject any comments. She was on a roll.

“They mean, according to the forms I will be filling out all weekend, that you will lead a horse to water and you WILL make him drink.” Snort. And this is from a woman who never gave up on kids.

I like the word common, too. We share a common commitment to our kids, to opportunity, to our community.

But the world also begs a question. What values do we hold in common? What values can we insist that our schools teach EVERY student.

What got me thinking about this — and inspired me to post my original question — was a conference I attended in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. The topic was the role of faith-based schools in American education; the attendees were almost all advocates of educational choice, a controversial topic in Utah and around the country.

Leaving that debate aside — we’ll be back there — I would just say that I was most struck by one speaker. A female principal at an Islamic school in Buffalo, New York, she described how her private school reflected the beliefs and values of the largely immigrant parents who chose this alternative to public schools. But she also described some of the ways the school sought to integrate students into the wider community, including joint service projects with Jewish student groups. Her faith impressed me, though it is not my faith. But what really hit home was how thoroughly she was accomplishing a public purpose — community building, religious reconciliation and understanding — in a private school.

It’s an old debate in American education. Are public schools supposed to create a new “public” that transcends the allegedly narrow, parochial, prejudiced values of benighted parents for democratic rationality? Before you leap to agree, think about an LDS child in an 1860s classroom, or a black child in the segregated south.

And think also about how Plato defined the purpose of education in the Laws (my thanks and apologies to Frederick Hess, since I lifted this quote from his terrific new book: The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.)

Said Plato, “The children must attend school, whether their parents like it or not; for they belong to the state more than to their parents.”

Over the next few weeks I want to explore some of the ideas that Hess and others have raised in a spate of excellent recent books on the (sad) history of school reform. But for now, I’d welcome comments on Plato . . . and on what the public in public education really means.

By the way, if you want to read an interesting commentary on this, check out the following article from Education Week.

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