Why Public Education?

There was a time when education throughout the world was primarily a privilege of the wealthy. Fortunately, our founding fathers recognized that the survival of our democracy depended upon an educated citizenry. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson (1820) put it best:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

There are many advantages to universal public schools, both economic and social, as Dr. Dana Mitra, Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University lists in her report Pennsylvania’s Best Investment: The Social and Economic Benefits of Public Education:

“Public education is a worthy investment for state government, with immense social and economic benefits. Research shows that individuals who graduate and have access to quality education throughout primary and secondary school are more likely to find gainful employment, have stable families, and be active and productive citizens. They are also less likely to commit serious crimes, less likely to place high demands on the public health care system, and less likely to be enrolled in welfare assistance programs. A good education provides substantial benefits to individuals and, as individual benefits are aggregated throughout a community, creates broad social and economic benefits. Investing in public education is thus far more cost-effective for the state than paying for the social and economic consequences of under-funded, low quality schools.”

From the earliest days of public education, the debate focused on how to best assure that all our citizens have access and opportunity to an education that would prepare them for the world in which they would live, work, and vote. This debate continues. However, the debate has veered from how best to develop and fund our public schools to privatizing school through vouchers and for-profit charters.

The proponents of “school choice” make a reasoned argument: If students aren’t getting a good education at a particular school, they should have the choice to move their kids to another school. On its surface, it makes sense. But privatizing public schooling threatens to leave our most vulnerable students behind. One report from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed that charters tend to underserve and over-discipline students. Another 2016 report by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder indicates that charters often increase racial and economic segregation:

While some choice school enrollments are genuinely integrated, the overall body of the research literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner status.

School choice is only available to those who are in a position to take advantage of it. They have transportation to get their child to a school outside their neighborhood. They can comply with the “parent contract” many schools have in terms of volunteer time and overseeing homework, and they speak enough English to be able to communicate effectively with teachers and administrators. There is nothing equitable about “school choice.” What we need is a strong public education system that provides equal opportunities and access; safe, clean, up-to-date, well-equipped facilities; and quality instruction in our inner cities. In short, the same advantages that students in the suburbs are given.