As We Know It

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2017

President's Corner
Interesting days lie ahead for public education. We have a new president and an incoming administration that includes a new U.S. Secretary of Education.

Naturally, there are moments when many people anxiously wonder what values and perspectives regarding public education will guide the thinking and decision making of this administration. Campaign statements, promises and past history of some of these new leaders have made many of my colleagues and associates fearful that we are about to lose public education “as we know it.”

When I hear people talk about the many things they fear losing “as we know them,” such as Social Security, Medicaid and public education, I wonder what we really “know” about them, especially public education. From a historical perspective, why was the concept of public education ever advanced? Are those reasons still valid or relevant? Should public education remain the same? What should public education be like in the future?

Like many of you, I’ve read and learned from some of the brightest minds in public education research and reform. I recognize many perspectives exist about the purpose of public education.

In the early 2000s, School: The Story of American Public Education was published as a companion to the highly acclaimed PBS documentary by the same name. The book chronicles the transition of public education from the common school standard of the 18th century to the present voucher and choice movement. It provides an overview of the movement from the value of common good and experiences intended to preserve our republic and meet social and occupational needs to more individualistic values. It discusses the transition from local control to central control and back to local control and reviews various reform initiatives enacted along the way — most of which are within the context of common values.

The book also delves into the current choice and voucher movement that is based mostly on market control. If public schools, like private-sector businesses, truly become market-driven, more public schools will take on a marketplace personality. To survive, they will have to tailor and promote their “product line” to a target market. That market may not reflect all school-age children, especially the kids used as an argument for charters, choice and vouchers — many of whom have not historically been the easiest to teach.

The arguments for charter schools have suggested they would become models of how to serve these students better, faster and cheaper. I don’t think there remains much of an argument or question as to whether that has happened to the degree promoted.

A popular assertion now is that we should not leave children trapped in a “failing school.” You’ve heard me state before that schools don’t fail people. Rather, people fail schools. Which people did the failing? It is not the same in every place.

After more than three decades of a professional life and honest observation, I see we certainly have some problems. We have failed in effectively addressing the needs of far too many children. Hidden between those two truths — truths that cause well-meaning people to nod their heads in agreement — are many untruths that do nothing toward finding real solutions. Many proposed solutions are neither grounded in fact nor based on a common good.

I do not believe we should use public policy or public education funds to build lifeboats for a few. I firmly believe we can do more for more children than we are proposing. If we don’t, we will lose our republic as we know it.

Join me in the conversation on Twitter at @altonfraileyC4Sor #tellyour story.