Peter Burrows: Why public schools matter
Living in the backdrop of a federal education policy hurtling towards privatization, it is critical that we take a moment to remember the foundational role our public schools play in our country. We need to reflect on our commitment to public education, and to understand the power that our system has in supporting a dynamic and civilized democracy. We need to be able to articulate why public schools matter, and what they mean to our communities, our democracy, and our students.
Public schools, first and foremost, are what Mann described as the “great equalizer,” a bridge between our differences. Our public schools are charged with preparing all students for lives as active participants in our democracy, to be thoughtful leaders that question, analyze, and engage the significant issues of their time. Public schools are mission-driven, to prepare students to thrive in a rapidly evolving workplace and to engage as active citizens.
Anyone keeping an eye on education policy in the U.S. and the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Education Secretary has noticed increasingly strident voices pushing for privatization of education. Our country has been engaged in a long and divisive dialogue about public education over the last 20 years, as the charter school movement has gathered momentum and various state models have been experimented with to drive change and flexibility in how we provide educational opportunities to our students.
The push to privatize has come at a time when we have brought into focus the need to serve all students, and not simply live with the persistent gaps that reveal themselves in student outcomes throughout our schools. The opportunity gap in our nation’s schools persists, and is the most pressing issue facing education. Proponents of privatization assert that the flexibility to innovate and redesign is greatly enhanced without the institutional structures of public education. However, thus far, there hasn’t been any consistent data to suggest that charter schools are substantively closing the opportunity gap.
With the nomination of Betsy DeVos as our new U.S. Secretary of Education, there are many in the country wondering what this will mean for public schools, and how this might signal a shift in the federal policy approach to public school funding. Peering into DeVos’ past, one sees a litany of efforts to privatize education, most notably in Michigan. Clearly, it is uncertain where the federal education stance on public education will take us.
Private and public schools have co-existed for centuries. But a push away from public schools as a central unifying core of our national values moves us further away from what prepares our students to be future leaders. Public schools are held to significant academic and civil rights standards that are critical to sustaining and growing our democratic values.
It’s appealing to think that educational inequities can be solved through market competition. Unfortunately, I don’t believe they can.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central School District and has more than two decades of experience in education.
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