Our public schools
Private education has historically been the domain of people with a special motivation, a special need or an ample bank account. Lately, conservatives have adopted the notion that the failings of the public schools mean that families ought to be able to divert public money away from the public schools to allow them to send their kids to private schools. Defenders of public schools have argued that doing so would sap resources away from public schools, making their jobs even more difficult.
This was the shape of a debate that took place in Montpelier earlier this week between stalwart defenders of public education and advocates of school choice. It is a reminder that public education is not a given. It requires the support of a willing public that recognizes the importance of public education, not just to individual children but to the health of American society as a whole.
It is important to remember what America is. It is a place that civilized itself. As pioneer families hacked away the wilderness and established settlements, they moved from the home-schooling of children in isolated cabins to the small schoolhouses erected by pioneer communities and scattered across the countryside. People in Vermont’s many towns, whose resources did not match ours today, made it a priority to build schools, libraries, colleges.
The nation’s cities, teeming with immigrants established public-school systems that became entry points for people from all over the world, learning English, learning baseball, learning their letters and numbers.
Alongside the public schools, private schools have always existed in parallel. Catholic schools promised education shaped by faith and provided a haven for immigrant groups that were not always welcome in the larger society. Irish, Italian or Polish families saved their pennies to pay for Catholic education, because it mattered to them and because the standards of excellence were high.
Private schools served other constituencies. Wealthy families enjoyed the ability to send their children to exclusive private schools. On the East Coast, in particular, private schooling enjoyed a status it did not enjoy elsewhere, partly because of the quality of education, partly because it was an emblem of privilege.
In the past, children with disabilities were sent off to private schools, hidden away in a system that, it was later concluded, treated them as second-class citizens. It was a special burden for families, but one they could not escape.
Alongside these private choices, the public-school system has evolved over the years, absorbing the changes in the larger society, taking on new responsibilities, suffering the doubts of the public and absorbing the effect of a taxpayers’ rebellion.
Part of the problem is that public schools in many places — not Vermont — suffer enormous financial inequities, which make it hard for them to provide high-quality education. Then, when they fail, they receive the blame. Of course, posh private schools are going to do better.
Schools reflect who we are. If parents fail to respect the need for discipline and hard work, the schools will suffer. If communities fail to respect the importance of education and the valuable role of teachers, schools will suffer. What communities need to do to ensure that their schools do the job is to do what families did through the course of the nation’s history: dedicate themselves to the success of their public schools and provide the resources they need.
A scattering of private schools within the larger society will always have an important place. To view them as a solution for the broader public is delusional. It is also fanciful to believe that the fear of losing students to private schools will somehow equip public-school administrators with new wisdom for how to run their schools.
Vermont’s schools are performing well, according to test results, in part because we no longer starve schools in poor towns of the funds they need to provide a decent education. The challenges schools face are the challenges America faces: a struggle with increasing poverty and changing attitudes toward educational accomplishment, reading, learning and discipline. Dedication to those values must come from all of us.