Post 17: The End of Public School

Thursday, March, 28, 13 § 2 Comments

Nearly two hundred years later, it appears the US is letting go of one of its most enduring dreams: the dream that the government should educate our nation’s children. According to this recent article in the New York Times, more and more state governments are admitting they’re unable to provide quality schools for their young citizens, and are passing the responsibility off to…. Well. That part’s not exactly clear.

The new dream of education in America, popular in the 1990’s and making another surge now, is of a system of vouchers. In this new dream, the government bows out of the business of providing education, and instead provides money to parents, and tells them to go out, and–like good Americans–shop around. Find the best school for your kid, and sign him up. And if it doesn’t work, pull him out and shop some more.

This new dream grows directly out of our love of free markets and innovation, of unimpeded efficiency and cutthroat competition. The new dream vanishes the cumbersome teacher unions and the coffee-sipping retirees-to-be in administrative offices, and offers a vision of a nation of sleek, independent schools, hawking the latest and greatest in pedagogy–or getting shut down for lack of clientele. The new dream posits that the more we expand the vouchered demand, the more the education supply will grow and diversify. Imagine a national boom of “start-up” schools, like so many start-up tech businesses in Silicon Valley, from which parents and students can pick and choose.

Maybe this will happen. There’s certainly no shortage of highly-motivated educators, and I imagine many of them would dare to start up small schools if they were assured income. I could imagine home school collectives forming in living rooms, pooling their voucher money to buy a few computers and a little van for field trips. Or a nature preserve deciding to get into the business, and opening an ecological school on their grounds. A local carpenter could start a “school” for three interested high school kids, and use the voucher money to hire a tutor to help out with academic stuff in the afternoon.

Come to think of it, if there was a voucher law in New Mexico, offering say $8000 per kid per year, I’d start a school tomorrow. I’d find twenty kids, and use the 160K to pay myself and my co-blogger Christian Casillas 60K a year, take out a 10K insurance policy and with the remaining 30K run a great school on the organic farm of my brother and sister-in-law. It’d meet four days a week, for maybe 150 days out of the year, and include backpacking trips and food harvesting and sustainability studies, with tons of reading, tons of inventing, and a smattering of academics when it rains.

I wonder how voucher fans would respond to my school. Many of the same people who are so interested in vouchers are also the people who are clamoring about accountability and results, and how our students’ tests scores aren’t as high as Finland’s. My organic farm school wouldn’t show much of a bump in standardized test scores, though. Mostly because after we analyzed the standardized tests for their cultural biases and absurdity, we’d toss them into the compost pile and get back to learning. But if parents were interested, couldn’t I run my school anyway–tests or not?

The answer is no. Voucher laws come with strings attached. Most of them require schools that receive the vouchers to test their students and to hire certified teachers (and of course to comply with civil rights laws–but all citizens and organizations must do that). Which means that the government is not really opening the market to true innovation. It’s saying, Here, Free Market. Take our same old tests, and take teachers who’ve been trained in our same old teacher training programs, and do what what we couldn’t. In other words, take the same inputs and provide different results.

It’s not going to happen. The voucher program is a set up. It will benefit kids like mine, kids with savvy, college-educated parents who know how to “shop around,” and have a few bucks to chip in if the voucher doesn’t cover the tuition at the school they want. And it will do nothing for the poor kids, at least for the great majority of them, whose parents are too busy or uninformed to do the proper school shopping.

What’s even more troubling, however, is the fact that vouchers are a way for the government–and for all of us–to duck our responsibility to sit down and do the unpleasant work of reaching some sort of consensus on how and why we want to educate our children–all our children. Education is not an economic endeavor to provide a product in the most efficient way. It is a political endeavor to define the values of a community. It is a pedagogical endeavor to generate innovative and relevant ways to transmit those values to the next generation. The free market, even if released from all restrictions, simply does not have the tools, or the “ethical compass” (to borrow the term from Aaron Stern), to lead the way.

So as much as I’d love to start up my voucher-funded organic farm school, and as much as I know it would be successful, I don’t think I should be allowed to do it, at least not in this way. My school should not be a maverick success story. It should be part of a larger community commitment to reach children in different, more relevant ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to stick with the status quo. I can imagine a new dream for public education, one in which the government turns over responsibility of schools not to the valueless free market, but to the passionate citizens who have decided to become teachers. Released for academic years at a time, teacher-leaders would be charged with holding forums with parents and business leader and students to better understand what types of schools we need, and to create them. They would be charged with educating the new generation of teachers–not in distant university classrooms, but right there in their classrooms and schools.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes, recalling the disastrous community-run schools in NYC from the 1960’s, which generated more turf wars and law suits than good education. Or the site-based management buzz of the early 1990’s, which was abandoned after teachers and principals realized all the endless planning meetings came with little real power to make changes. But the vision I’m holding is different, and has proven to work in Finland, where teachers truly are running the educational system.

I don’t think vouchers signify the end of the public school dream. The idea will expand for a few years and then fail. Perhaps it may even prove to be the necessary though painful step that ends up leading us, through our government, towards re-assuming responsibility for public education. And this time, let’s hope we let teachers lead the way.

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