Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Constituency for Public Schools

A great deal of my education reading this week has been influenced by one question: Have public schools lost track of their primary constituency? Everything sort of came together this week to focus on this one basic, yet fundamentally important question.

It all started with a new book for my Sunday reading (because of the Bar Exam studying--I only get Sunday to read non-law stuff outside of work), Joe Williams' Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education. Although I have not gotten all the way through even the first three chapters, Williams is putting the current education debate as a tension between the employment of adults in the system versus the education of kids in the system. Given the title, you can see where Williams comes down.

Then there has been the post and debate in the comments over at Jenny D's. Finally, one of my new favority education blogs, The DeHavilland Blog, asked the question: Is there a public for public schools?

The Debate at Jenny D's is particularly noteworthy since she asks the question:
[W]hy do we, as a nation of citizens, cough up tax dollars to educate all children? What's the point of doing this? Why not just leave it up to each family to educate its children?
And even more pointedly, in the comments, Jenny asks:
What interest does the State have in educating children? Why would the state pay for this? What does the State want students to get from school, and want it enough to pay for it?


what if the state's interests in educating children differ from an individual's interests? What if the state has different goals and objectives than an individual parent? Who should pay then?
These are not easy questions.

But, DeHaviland blog points out:
This trend snowballed of course, and Mathews describes today’s environment as one where the public pays lip service to its commitment to schools, when in reality they feel disengaged and unwelcome, and would prefer not to have their children subjected to a system they feel is not only unresponsive but manifestly unsafe and ineffective. He sees education today as driven by battles between special interests groups, and the lack of interest and involvement by communities means that any top-down reforms enacted by these warring factions will not succeed.

He doesn’t see any of this as malicious: nobody is out to destroy our kids. In fact, all parties are trying to do what they believe is right for education. But in the end, it's clear that the community has been effectively shut out of education, except for specific opportunities dictated by the schools (primarily when funds and manpower are needed – certainly not in areas with substantive input), and when you deprive someone of input, they don't feel any connection or obligation to resulting output.(Emphasis Added)
In short, any real changes in the manner in which we educate our children probably are not going to come from pundits, experts or even educators. The real changes are going to come from parents and voters--from the very people who are constiuents of public schools.

In many ways, I believe we are on the brink of a seismic shift in the manner in which we educate our children. It has become abundantly clear that a one-size fits all model, with monopolistic control of both the labor and delivery of education, fails a significant portion of our children. This is not to say that all schools are bad, merely that systemically, the people with the most to gain or lose in the system are going to start to take it back.

When even in suburban neighborhoods, where schools supposed do right by our children, parents are seeking more and more alternatives. When charter schools and voucher programs are launched, the demand for seats far outstrips the supply of classroom seats. The growth of homeschooling indicates a growing frustration of many at the inability of schools to address the needs of students and parents. All of these discordant strings of dissension and tension begin to move together, echoing the same themes--it is a voice that cannot be denied.

In short, there is a "silent" constituency that is growing a little more vocal. In 10-15 years, the shouts will be loud and woe unto the elected leaders who do not listen. For too long the public school constituents have been silent or silenced--but not for much longer.

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