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Public Schools and Public Interest

Disparate approaches to defining the common good and how education can best address it by FREDERICK M. HESS
Many of the more radical reforms on the education agenda are attacked by educators as inconsistent with our tradition of “public education.” Critics of charter schooling, school vouchers and school contracting argue that such proposals undermine public schooling.

Meanwhile, proponents of accountability argue that all public schools should meet performance standards crafted by public officials at the federal or state levels. This politicized usage has rendered the phrase “public schooling” increasingly ambiguous. The phrase has morphed into a political football that offers little concrete guidance as to how schools are to negotiate the need to serve both individual students and appropriate public purposes.

From the perspective of a school administrator, the most interesting questions here relate to the governance and the purpose of schooling. Namely, what purposes should the schools serve and who should determine those purposes? Who should set performance goals for schools? Is school choice consistent with an insistence on schools serving the public interest?

These questions are useful both because they can help us think more rigorously about how new approaches are consistent or inconsistent with our heritage of public schooling and because they can help us see where traditional schools may not be fulfilling our expectations of public schools.

Almost everyone agrees that schools need to serve “public” interests that extend beyond academic learning. Public officials routinely describe the public interest as requiring schools to teach tolerance, civic participation, and so on, barely pausing to note these are such broad concepts whose meaning is not entirely clear. Are public purposes really served by fostering tolerance? If so, how much tolerance and tolerance of what? Does tolerance mean accepting that others are different or does it require students to embrace differences? Are we supposed to teach children to tolerate anti-Semitism or racism or anti-abortion activists who deface private property? Does civic participation entail convincing students to vote? Does it mean encouraging them to protest laws they dislike? Should we teach that anti-war protesters are honorable or unpatriotic? How do we know what the public interest is, and who gets to decide?

Public Interest
The responsibility for sorting through these issues belongs to the same public that is being served. That raises a prior question: Who constitutes the mythic “public”? Is it the community in which the school is located? Is it the state? Is it the entire population of the country? Only after considering that issue does it make sense to ask what “public control” of schooling requires.

There are two fundamentally different approaches to conceptualizing the public interest when we think about the purposes of education. One view is that there is a common good that transcends the wants or needs of individuals. Termed the “general will” by the 18th century philosopher Rousseau, this train of thought can be traced back to Plato and his notion that successful states need a far-sighted leader to determine their true interests, without regard to the preferences of the mob.

A second view is the classic liberalism that regards the public interest as the sum of the interests of individual citizens and rejects the idea of a distinct and transcendent general will. This pragmatic perspective shaped the creation of American public institutions, including the checks and balances that help aggregate popular preferences in a tempered fashion.

Neither perspective is necessarily correct. Each has strengths and each can pose certain dangers. Fealty to the general will can lead to grand schemes and imperial efforts to have the state dictate culture and beliefs, but complete rejection of a shared public interest can undermine the habits of mind essential to maintain a strong democratic state. Our government of limited and countervailing powers, though, draws much more heavily upon the pragmatic dictates of liberalism. Despite our tendency to suffuse the education debates with the sweeping rhetoric of a disembodied national interest, our system was designed by men suspicious of such grand visions.

Further, our federal system of government, with its division of power between the national, state and local communities, was designed in part to offer a way to address this tension. It provided for policy decisions to be made at a variety of levels, with decisions generally reserved to the state or local level unless a compelling reason for decisions to be made nationally existed. The array of interests involved in a decision becomes narrower as decisions become more localized because communities tend to be more homogeneous than are the broader entities of state or nation. Thus the tradition of local control in education ensures that many education decisions regarding traditional public schools reflect a relatively narrow array of interests.

Recent moves to shift control over educational standards and accountability from the local to the state and the federal levels have served to ensure that each school is pushed to pursue ends that are implicitly acceptable to the entire American population. Of course this creates real tensions as Americans disagree about what the public interest entails and therefore about what skills, knowledge, performance or habits of mind are likely to further it.

When we try to determine the public interest at the national level, we inevitably divorce the conversation from a particular educational context, from personal relationships and from local understandings. The issues become colored by the political needs of parties and national interest groups and contested by national organizations that attract donations and support by relentlessly pursuing a particular agenda. While we don’t want to romanticize local decision making, efforts to define the public interest in education at the local level are aided by denser personal relationships, greater familiarity with the community and more flexible partisans who have more room to compromise than do national organizations with well-defined constituencies and positions.

Consequently, at the national level, educational debates rarely produce explicit agreement about what the public interest requires or how schools are to serve it. Instead, as with No Child Left Behind, policy produces agreements on inputs or on goals for individual student performance—areas where there is less fundamental philosophical conflict. This leaves unsettled the question of public purposes that extend beyond resource provision or academic achievement. As a result, educators are left to manage without an operational conception of the national purposes of schooling.

Regardless of whether we determine the purposes of schooling at the national level or at a more local level, we soon encounter a related question: How much of a school’s moral and civic mission ought to be externally defined? Do we believe that schools should advance morality and civic purposes as they see fit or do we want the state to exercise a strict degree of control over the values schools teach? To the extent that we opt to narrowly prescribe certain virtues and ways of teaching them, it’s necessary for the government to monitor these and ensure that they are being faithfully pursued. It’s not unreasonable for a free country to shrink from such a course. We might decide that we do want government authorities to establish general expectations about how schools will serve the public interest but that schools ought to have considerable leeway in how they pursue these.

To the extent that state, local or federal officials fail to provide explicit direction, however, we are making a conscious choice to forego public determination of public purposes and instead we are permitting educators to use their judgment as to what public purposes are and which moral and civic virtues ought to be cultivated. This poses obvious problems, not the least of which is that being employed as an educator doesn’t necessarily grant one enhanced moral wisdom or personal virtue. If schools are to serve as places where educators advance purposes and cultivate virtues they endorse—rather than those determined by the public—it is not clear in what sense schools are serving public purposes. In such a case, appropriate respect for diverse views of morality and civic virtue would suggest that we not demand that children be subjected to the particular point of view held by educators at an assigned school. Rather, respect for our pluralistic traditions would suggest we ensure families are able to avail themselves of a range of schools that understand and teach public purposes, morality and civic virtue in various ways.

Question of Control
In recent years, policy decisions have shifted a growing amount of control from localities to the states and, particularly since the passage of No Child Left Behind, the federal government. Moving decision making to a higher level broadens the array of interests reflected, but means that the results are less tailored to the needs and values of any one community. When we think it important that a broader range of people have the opportunity to be involved in a decision, decisions should be made at a more comprehensive level. Such a step does not ensure that decisions will be more thoughtful, only that more people are given a chance to put their two cents in.

It is not clear that the decision-making process at one level or the other ought to be considered more public in any sense. To claim that the level at which decisions are made matters in this fashion is to suggest that mayoral elections or town meetings are less public than are presidential elections or state legislative debates. We don’t typically do that even though many local communities are self-selected and are often highly unrepresentative of the larger nation. It has never been suggested that elections in San Francisco or Gopher Springs, W.Va., would be more public or more legitimate if the communities included more residents who didn’t want to be there and whose views made the larger community more representative of the nation. In other words, neither self-selection nor local homogeneity makes public entities or institutions less public.

Especially important in the case of schooling is that there will almost always be greater homogeneity in self-selected communities. Consequently, charter schools, magnet schools and other schools of choice will attract educators and families that share certain beliefs and views regarding education. For obvious reasons, schools of choice generally do not attract families that disapprove of the school program. This means that school-level decisions over school policy and practice will represent only one segment of the community. In some sense, this would seem to make schools of choice less democratic and less public. On the other hand, such schools enjoy noticeably higher rates of support and participation among the families and, frequently, the neighborhood groups that constitute the school community. Such involvement could cause us to regard these schools as more democratic and public.

In truth, even ardent proponents of democratic participation do not suggest that every voice needs or deserves input into every decision. Local decision making, school-site councils and decentralization are premised on the notion that children benefit when parents and educators are given more input into shaping their community schools. A diverse array of prominent education reformers, including individuals like Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer, argue that largely autonomous schools where the community is free to forge a shared local vision are more educationally effective than schools governed by more traditional democratic oversight.

What reform proponents like Meier and Sizer suggest is a need to reduce formal public control in order to increase the active control of the school community. School-level autonomy can permit a faculty to forge a shared vision, can cultivate an enhanced sense of ownership and can permit a common ethos to grow and take hold. Of course, as has been noted in Meier’s own Central Park East High School or in successful Coalition of Essential School locales, such communities need to be self-selected to be effective. If students or families are uncomfortable with the school in which they are required to enroll or if teachers or administrators are hired without regard to their commitment, it can readily fracture the ability of the community to support individual learning or public ends. This means that such schools require substantial independence from formal public control and the ability to help determine their own membership.

Given such considerations, it is not self-evident just how much participation and voice and at what level we ought to insist various publics have in shaping policy and practice. However, to the extent we do deem these concerns vital, it seems clear they should apply equally for all schools, including those staffed by government employees.

Power of Public
Confusion about what it means for schools to serve the public or be publicly monitored is a problem because the phrase “public schooling” is freighted with enormous rhetorical power and this power too often has been used to stifle consideration of nontraditional approaches to reform.

One result has been the creation of a false standard against which we gauge nontraditional schools and a tendency to excuse poor performance or impropriety on the part of traditional district schools. By failing to make clear what we mean by the “public interest,” we have made it impossible to consider the merits of different forms of educational provision or different approaches to school governance in a coherent fashion. It was John Dewey, philosopher and champion of public education, who observed nearly eight decades ago that private institutions may effectively serve public ends and that public institutions may fail to do so.

The debate over charter schools is one example of a case where both proponents and critics have struggled to define themselves as defenders of public education without paying much attention to what that label actually implies. A U.S. Department of Education official told me that charter schools are unique among forms of school choice because “they are public schools,” while a superintendent voiced concern that charter schools are “a greater threat to public schooling than are school vouchers” because “charter schoolers are having success passing their private schools off as public schools.” A respected scholar offhandedly said she would find charter schooling acceptable so long as it “fostered the values of public education.”

These statements—interesting primarily because they are unexceptional—suggest a lack of clarity about what public schooling requires. As a result, debate over standards, the enhanced federal role in education and school choice devolves into competing claims about whether various proposals are consistent with public schooling without much consideration as to what this actually means in terms of who is overseeing these schools or whether they are serving the public interest.

The phrase “public schooling” resonates with vague notions of democracy, legitimacy, equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and shared values. We forget that these notions are not implicit in government-run schools, whichever level of the government is directing them. In fact, researchers, such as Patrick Wolf, David Campbell and Jay Greene, have conducted preliminary research that suggests that traditional private schools may do a better job than public schools of embodying and promoting some widely praised public values, such as tolerance and civic virtue. Systematic studies challenging their findings have not yet emerged.

In using different standards to judge traditional district schools and other options like charter schooling or voucher schools, we too often turn a blind eye when the practices of traditional public schools do not comport with the proclaimed public interest. Meanwhile, we are overly wary of schools that do not fit neatly into our traditional concept of public schooling, even when these nontraditional schools educate and socialize children in ways we find desirable.

National policy is changing how and by whom the public interest is being determined. Increased emphasis on measurable achievement has proceeded with little rigorous attention, on either the traditionalist or the nontraditionalist side of the debate as to how these goals advance or affect other legitimate public purposes of education. Most important, we need to become much more disciplined and explicit about how we determine the public interest that schools serve and just what it entails.

Rick Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036. E-mail: rhess@aei.org. He is the executive editor of Education Next and the author of Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban Reform.