What exactly is the purpose of public education? Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping education package has introduced a litany of policy initiatives, slogans, and ideas that have flown over the public’s head faster than it did through the House and Senate education committees. As the general public literally waits for whatever falls in our collective laps, would proponents or opponents please articulate a coherent vision of the purpose of public education.
In the latest reform scrum, stakeholders have generally fought to put mechanisms in place that eventually constitute a good school. Merit pay, tenure, charter school expansion and to a lesser extent school choice all speak to how to improve educational outcomes at an individual school level. The voucher program does get at a larger a vision of a public system, but the defenses of the program have leaned heavily on the importance giving individual families options to attend a school, public or private, of their choosing.
Over the last twenty years, reformers have demanded change based on the failure of public schools and have used the faces of urban poor embarrassingly to garner political support. Very few reformers have spoken explicitly to the importance of achieving a quality public system for everyone. Families don’t just of need good schools. The Country, State and our neighborhoods need good public systems. Public systems, especially in education, should definitely not translate merely to systems for the disenfranchised. Achieving a supermarket of good school options is also not the ideal.
A good public system is not just about parent choice. The Black Alliance of Educational Opportunities of all groups should know that parents’ decisions don’t always comport with national and/or state goals. Systems built rigidly on individual choices helped facilitate segregated schooling and financing systems based on property taxes, both of which created deep-seated inequities that states still grapple with today.
Parents should have choices. However, we should not decentralize education to such a micro or family level that we remove a collective purpose from our vision of public education. “Let parents decide” is too often said in the spirit of individualism and not community. Teachers placing their professions over the clear need for change is a result of individualism. Narrowing good schools to a test score is a result of individualism. Selfish acts, no matter who decides, won’t deliver educational or community progress.
Many have derided the lack of deliberation and discussion around Jindal’s package. I’m less sympathetic to most of these cries because most policymakers seek legislative alignment over community understanding. However, I do think the lack of deliberation is recklessly undemocratic and is symptomatic of a society filled with individuals wearing headphones. Ideology is beating anti-intellectualism in the race to the bottom.
No matter how slow and messy, democratic decision-making creates better outcomes. We should honor those. In a democracy, public schools represent our democratic means to create a better country. If there is a purpose that should guide Jindal’s education agenda, let us remember it’s to create places where students of different religions, ethnicities, races and creeds can learn that it’s not just about my choice, my faith, or my agenda.