Public schools—now there’s a topic ripe for discussion. More discussion than we can wrap up here. Like with the previous two parts of the series, we’ll do an overview and leave it up to the reader to do more research and analysis if so inclined. See the list of links at the end. First a disclaimer: we’ll offer some generalities that we believe to be so well accepted that sources are unnecessary. We’ll also refer to the political controversies and ideologies that color the topic without taking sides. With grown children, the subject is may be moot. Still, there is the issue of property values and taxes.
If you’ve ever bought or sold a house, you probably considered or at least were told of public schools that serve the neighborhood. If you had school-aged children, you likely took some time to check the ratings of those schools. But even if you don’t have school age children you probably know that the quality of schools can strongly affect the buying or selling price. It also affects taxes—by altering the value of the home. Here’s where it gets complicated.
In modern America, public schools have all sorts of funding schemes—nearly all of which entail getting money through one form of taxation or another. In some states and localities, there are school districts with taxing authority. Typically, such districts have elected school boards. So taxpayers who wish to pay less, may want to base decisions on who to vote for based on who says they’ll keep expenses down. Parents concerned about quality of education may be more concerned with raising test scores, graduation rates and/or advancement to higher-level education. In some cases, there are bond referendums for school construction. Elected school boards may be independent from and not coterminous with local governing bodies that control police, fire and other governmental services. In some jurisdictions, those local governing bodies appoint school boards. In which case the taxing authority probably lies with that governing body—whether it’s a city, town or county. So, the bill for schools could be an add-on or simply funded by property tax. Or maybe a sales tax. Or maybe from contributions by the state. Not to mention grants from the Federal government—especially for students with disabilities, etc. So money for schools is a mess. How can pragmatism apply?
The first question is, do you care or have the time to pay attention to what’s happening with schools? You probably should, for the reasons that follow. It’s your money, in terms of taxes. It’s your money in terms of property values in your neighborhood when it comes time to sell—even if you’re retired. It’s your children’s education, if you have any or plan on having them in the future. More broadly, your stake in the general economic and cultural quality of your community depends on the quality of schools. A city or town with poor schools is not as likely to attract businesses to the community. That, in turn affects whether your community remains a vibrant and economically strong. Maybe you’re retired and looking for a stable locale that’s neither booming nor declining. If you’re just starting out, you might want one that’s growing and building schools.
But let’s get back to business interests. They were among the first pushing for public schools even in pre-industrial America. Literacy, math skills and academic subjects were little needed in an agrarian society. Once office workers, skilled labor and other occupational demands arose, business needed employees that could communicate effectively in writing and had rudimentary math skills. Private education that had been available only to those families that could afford it worked well enough for professional jobs. It did fine for others as well. But as people moved from farms to cities, educational requirements grew. So for-profit and religious education no longer sufficed. Given all the diversity in types of governance as the nation grew and developed, those peculiarities of funding happened.
One more note about past problems and controversies with education. Slaves were prohibited from being educated. They learned at their peril. Move to the 20th century and you find segregated schools that the U.S. Supreme Court opined were fine insofar as they were “separate but equal.” Eventually, the Court said it wasn’t fine at all. You know what happened after that. Native American children were removed from families and reservations in favor of boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the process, their native languages were ignored and they were taught in English—a form of forced assimilation or acculturation many argued. Those schools too were eventually closed. The remnants of that history play out in court-mandated desegregation/integration and quality of education found in inner city or reservation schools.
Fast forward to the late 20th and early 21st century and educational issues have become much more complicated. Universal literacy is a fundamental premise of public education. Employers still need workers who can communicate effectively not only orally but in writing—reading instructions and manuals, writing reports or analyses, etc. They need sufficient skills in a host of subjects in order to perform at work or make it through daily life. It’s called adult functional competency—but it’s rarely paid attention to when discussions of curriculum come up. That’s another critical issue we’ll address shortly. The assumption is that students will learn from their family or by osmosis in subject matter courses, to manage their finances—bank and credit accounts. They’ll learn about renting apartments or homes, buying cars, insurance and other essential parts of modern life. Starting in elementary school and proceeding through high school, they will either get on a track to attend college or receive some other form of education that will enable them to find work. Unfortunately, none of this works as well as it should.
Researchers, news media and others regularly report on the dismal quality of American education relative to other advanced nations. Curiously, despite those supposed shortcomings, America’s economy still leads the world. As does America’s production capacity, it’s technology and many other elements of the GDP. Both quantitative and qualitative analysis became an integral and probably overemphasized part of the management of everything in America. Sounds like a bona fide tool of pragmatism doesn’t it? Well yes, to a point. Like everything, the devil is in the details. All too often, the old apple vs orange paradigm comes into play. In evaluating the relative of one success of one educational system with another it’s critical that they’re genuinely comparable. So when you read these reports, take them with a grain of salt until you’re sure that they are valid comparisons. Still, there are quality issues.
Colleges complain that entering freshmen, even ones with good grades from supposedly quality schools, need remedial courses in order to do college level composition. Employers complain that workers, even college educated ones, can’t communicate effectively or do basic work. In the end, America’s colleges and businesses muddle on—with high productivity and advances. So is it much ado about nothing or are there problems? Perhaps there are problems and perhaps there are generation gaps or perspective problems. Times change and so do people. Nonetheless, the shorthand of tweets is probably not adequate for government or professional work. ROFL.
We have saved the curriculum controversy and the issue of what kind of schools paid for by whom and how for last. That’s where the action is today and that’s where politics, policies and pragmatism meet. Almost any part of a curriculum can be controversial in one region, state or locality. That’s the nature of political perspective and discourse today. English—what about being taught as a second language? The immigrant issue. Math—old, new or something else. History—from whose perspective. Did Europeans treat Native Americans badly or not? Was the Civil War fought over slavery, economic issues, states’ rights or something else? Science—when evolution is properly (in a Philosophy of Science sense for proof) called a “theory,” does that mean it’s not 100% valid and should “creationism” therefore be given equal treatment? Religion—OK in public schools as historical antecedents with “neutral” explanations of tenets of faith. Or should Bible (which one? There’s many) study and prayers (of one faith or another) be offered in school? The U.S. Supreme Court seems to say that such practices don’t comport with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Back into the weeds a bit here. What is the purpose of education? Why do most American states compel children to attend, whether they like it or not, until age 16? Note that the states don’t require students attend public school. They can attend private schools—religious or non-denominational. Well-to-do Americans have sent their children to private schools for centuries and continue to do so. Parents with strong religious beliefs have also long sent their children to schools that include a substantial component of religious instruction in their curriculum. Finally, most (if not all) states now permit children to be schooled in the parent’s home but with some prescribed curriculum elements and progress testing. As a nation, having an educated population capable of earning a living is one reason. Understanding and exercising the rights and privileges of citizenship is another. Sharing in some form of reality that puts us all in touch with Rousseau’s Social Compact is still another.
Now for more on the controversy. Yes, some public schools don’t function well. Yes, their students don’t get a good education. The reasons why are part of the controversy. The bigger part of the controversy is the alternatives or remedies to cure the problems. Is it the fault of lazy or incompetent teachers? Underfunding? Bad curriculum choices? Poorly prepared students with parents who are not well equipped to offer homework help—or even to feed and clothe them well? Some or all of the above in some cases. So pre-K or preschool programs have been developed as a pre-remedial or development program. Charter schools with innovative programming have been developed. Performance measures (here we go with qualitative analysis again) reward or penalize teachers for test score improvement or passing grades. But can teachers actually make students learn better or simply do better on tests? Lead that horse to water, eh or “it takes two to tango.” You decide. Finally, school vouchers. Taxpayers paid their money, the argument goes, and if the schools aren’t up to par then why not let them pay for private school with a voucher? Ah, now we’re in the heat of politics intersecting with policies. Teachers unions and education associations say this will destroy America’s system of public education. Voucher proponents say if the public schools were doing the job they wouldn’t be at risk. Besides, why should their tax dollars fund bad schools and then they have to pay again for better ones? No easy answers here. There are studies out there that compare charter schools with ordinary public schools. Are there ones that compare private with public? We don’t know for sure. That doesn’t answer the question of taxes and school funding. Rather begs the question of public versus private. America began its educational system with private schools. Will it return to them? Politically, probably not. Financially—it’s an open question. Try to decide yourself—not on a kneejerk political basis but on a pragmatic basis. What’s the best use of your tax dollars and what’s the best outcome–not only for your children but for America.
Further reading, demonstrating the malleability of truth, facts and history. The sources are bolded. The list is far from comprehensive and may not be representative of all sides of every controversial subject but it’s easy enough to search for more if you are so inclined. Dare if you will, to read ones that might not conform to your particular political perspective:
History of Public Education in America from Wikipedia
Historical Timeline of Public Education in the U.S. from Race Forward, the Center for Racial Justice Innovation (you will find an historical perspective that adds race into the timeline)
The Charter School vs. Public School Debate Continues from NPR
Public vs. private vs. charter schools from Great Schools (a 501 c 3 organization), which claims to be “the leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their children”
The History of Public Education from Homeschool World
A Brief History of Public Education in the United States (part 1) from Huffington Post
Creation-evolution controversy from Wikipedia
10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew about the Creation vs. Evolution Debate from On Faith Apparently, the linked site is no longer up and running as of August 2019.
JOINT STATEMENT OF CURRENT LAW ON RELIGION IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS from ACLU website—but (signatories include a substantial number of faith organizations representing most major denominations among American religious bodies)
Lily Eskelsen Garcia reacts to nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary [Link is no longer available] from MSNBC video; Garcia is President of the National Education Association (NEA) School Vouchers: Pros and Cons from University of Pennsylvania, Wharton [article apparently no longer available]
10 Reasons Why Private School Vouchers Should Be Rejected from Americans United for Separation of Church and State