Early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis defended public schools and their role in American society in a recent article for The Atlantic. Here’s an excerpt:
Few people care more about individual students than public-school teachers do, but what’s really missing in this dystopian narrative is a hearty helping of reality: 21st-century public schools, with their record numbers of graduates and expanded missions, are nothing close to the cesspools portrayed by political hyperbole. This hyperbole was not invented by [President Donald] Trump or [U.S. Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos, but their words and proposals have brought to a boil something that’s been simmering for a while—the denigration of our public schools, and a growing neglect of their role as an incubator of citizens.
Americans have in recent decades come to talk about education less as a public good, like a strong military or a noncorrupt judiciary, than as a private consumable. In an address to the Brookings Institution, DeVos described school choice as “a fundamental right.” That sounds appealing. Who wouldn’t want to deploy their tax dollars with greater specificity? Imagine purchasing a gym membership with funds normally allocated to the upkeep of a park.
My point here is not to debate the effect of school choice on individual outcomes: The evidence is mixed, and subject to cherry-picking on all sides. I am more concerned with how the current discussion has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous…
In defending our public schools, I do not mean to say they can’t be improved. But if we are serious about advancing them, we need to stop scapegoating unions and take steps to increase and improve the teaching pool. Teacher shortages are leaving many states in dire straits: The national shortfall is projected to exceed 100,000 teachers by next year…
Oddly, the idea of addressing our supply-and-demand problem the old-fashioned American way, with a market-based approach, has been largely unappealing to otherwise free-market thinkers. And yet raising salaries would have cascading benefits beyond easing the teacher shortage. Because salaries are associated with teacher quality, raising pay would likely improve student outcomes. Massachusetts and Connecticut have attracted capable people to the field with competitive pay, and neither has an overall teacher shortage.
Apart from raising teacher pay, we should expand the use of other strategies to attract talent, such as forgivable tuition loans, service fellowships, hardship pay for the most-challenging settings (an approach that works well in the military and the foreign service), and housing and child-care subsidies for teachers, many of whom can’t afford to live in the communities in which they teach. We can also get more serious about de-larding a bureaucracy that critics are right to denounce: American public schools are bloated at the top of the organizational pyramid, with too many administrators and not enough high-quality teachers in the classroom…
So what happens when we neglect the public purpose of our publicly funded schools? The discussion of vouchers and charter schools, in its focus on individual rights, has failed to take into account American society at large. The costs of abandoning an institution designed to bind, not divide, our citizenry are high.
Already, some experts have noted a conspicuous link between the decline of civics education and young adults’ dismal voting rates. Civics knowledge is in an alarming state: Three-quarters of Americans can’t identify the three branches of government. Public-opinion polls, meanwhile, show a new tolerance for authoritarianism, and rising levels of antidemocratic and illiberal thinking. These views are found all over the ideological map, from President Trump, who recently urged the nation’s police officers to rough up criminal suspects, to, ironically, the protesters who tried to block DeVos from entering a Washington, D.C., public school in February.
We ignore public schools’ civic and integrative functions at our peril. To revive them will require good faith across the political spectrum. Those who are suspicious of public displays of national unity may need to rethink their aversion. When we neglect schools’ nation-binding role, it grows hard to explain why we need public schools at all. Liberals must also work to better understand the appeal of school choice, especially for families in poor areas where teacher quality and attrition are serious problems. Conservatives and libertarians, for their part, need to muster more generosity toward the institutions that have educated our workforce and fueled our success for centuries.
The political theorist Benjamin Barber warned in 2004 that “America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.” In this era of growing fragmentation, we urgently need a renewed commitment to the idea that public education is a worthy investment, one that pays dividends not only to individual families but to our society as a whole.