Putting the ‘public’ back in ‘public schools’

When we at Great Schools for All sing the virtues of school diversity to groups who have asked to hear what we have to say, we find a lot of heads nodding in agreement. You can almost hear the thoughts:

“Yes, children should be in diverse schools where they can learn to work with and appreciate children who are not like themselves. Yes, every child should have access to a great school. No, the quality of a child’s education should not be defined by the neighborhood his or her parents can afford to live in.”

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

But another line of thought also runs through some more affluent parents’ minds—one they are not always comfortable voicing in public. They wonder if attending a socioeconomically diverse school, despite the advantages they readily acknowledge, could deprive their kids of the undeniable benefits that accrue to them at academically elite schools where students have the highest test scores, graduation rates near 100 percent and which send their graduates on to elite colleges that pretty much guarantee high-paying careers.

I don’t mean to trivialize that concern for a minute. All parents want the best for their kids, and it’s easy to feel that if we fail to provide our kids with every advantage we can, to give them a leg up on the competition, then we’ve failed them. Yes, we know schools should help kids become “culturally competent” and good citizens of the world who understand and value other cultures. But what if diverse magnet schools don’t have the same reputation as elite suburban schools? What if,our choices for them somehow cost our kids a little future earning power?

I don’t think I can or would try to answer that question for another parent. But I encourage you to follow the writing of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine who writes frequently about the disastrous effects of school segregation, especially on the poor. She and her husband live in Brooklyn and decided to send their daughter to a neighborhood public school—a diverse, but still poor school—even though they could have enrolled her in a more affluent city school.

In a February 21 piece, Hannah-Jones says it’s important to put the public back in public schools, to stop working to get the most for our own kids out of a public school—even at the expense of other kids.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Hannah-Jones says,” called traditional public schools a ‘dead end’” and “bankrolled efforts to pass reforms in Michigan, her home state, that would funnel public funds in the form of vouchers into religious and privately operated schools and encouraged the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. “

In truth, Hannah-Jones writes, “We began moving away from the ‘public’ in public education a long time ago. In fact, treating public schools like a business these days is largely a matter of fact in many places. Parents have pushed for school-choice policies that encourage shopping for public schools that they hope will give their children an advantage and for the expansion of charter schools that are run by private organizations with public funds. Large numbers of public schools have selective admissions policies that keep most kids out. And parents pay top dollar to buy into neighborhoods zoned to ‘good’ public schools that can be as exclusive as private ones. The glaring reality is, whether we are talking about schools or other institutions, it seems as if we have forgotten what ‘public’ really means.”

There’s more to public schools than public money, she says. “Public schools became widespread in the 1800s, not to provide an advantage for particular individuals but with the understanding that shuffling the wealthy and working class together (though not black Americans and other racial minorities) would create a common sense of citizenship and national identity, that it would tie together the fates of the haves and the have-nots and that doing so benefited the nation. A sense of the public good was a unifying force because it meant that the rich and the poor, the powerful and the meek, shared the spoils — as well as the burdens — of this messy democracy.”

This is tough stuff, but worth contemplating. It is a fairly recent idea that test scores and high-paying job opportunities are the only real purposes to public schools. Of course, academic achievement matters, but kids should (will) continue to learn throughout their lives.

What students learn from and about each other as young children will determine not what they learn later, but how well they will put their knowledge to the service of country and community and democratic values.

That’s why diversity matters.