The future of public education was on the mind of many voters on Tuesday. Candidates for national, state, and local offices put their education programs front and center as they appealed for voter support. Statewide and local contests for education-related offices drew campaign donors well outside their direct constituencies. This high level of attention is the result of the ongoing debate about the future of public education, including how it should be organized and governed.
Years of struggle and billions of dollars have been invested. The differences are not solely about educational strategy, the nature of curriculum or teaching philosophy. A larger struggle is taking place about the core purpose of public education and its societal role.
For some, improvement will result from “creatively destroying” the traditional model of public education and replacing it with one that maximizes parental choice within an open education marketplace where private interests predominate. They see education as a very individual process, measured by each child’s progress. For others, the future must be built to honor the public’s shared interest in education, viewing schools and educational organizations as more than simply buildings for the delivery of educational services. They see education as a communal project that builds and supports the nation’s democratic ideals as they teach the ABC’s. Education’s relationship to the public, and how education is governed, are at stake.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris assert that “public governance of our schools matters for the health of our democracy. The public school was designed to serve and promote the common good; it is paid for by the public, and it belongs to the public, not entrepreneurs.”
From their perspective, the at-times messy work of elected school boards is a necessary component of schools remaining integral to the communities they serve. They cite Amy Lueck, who, in a look at the historic role of the public high school recently published in the Atlantic, is concerned that “as Americans face a new era of educational reform and broad societal change, they might do well to heed a lesson from the first two centuries of public education: As an institution, the fate of the high school cannot be detached from the community of which it is a part. Like all educational institutions, it is inextricably wrapped up with the goals and values of the town, city, and nation in which it is located, reflecting and perpetuating them.”
From this perspective, public schools do more than educate each child individually; they help build vibrant communities and underpin the national task of creating a shared future. The view from the other side sees the community-based and governed model of education as less important, even harmful, to the school’s sole purpose of educating each child. The model of public governance and accountability is inefficient and too subject to a fickle public which can and will vote in new leadership and disrupt plans and programs.
Four years ago, Valerie Strauss described for the Post how the social-entrepreneurial view of public education looks to a new way of governing public education as key to its vision of the future. In a speech to the California School Boards Association, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, an advocate of market-based reform, said, “The fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault. The fundamental problem is that they don’t get to control their boards, and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large nonprofits.…The most important thing is that they constantly get better every year; they’re getting better because they have stable governance—they don’t have an elected school board.” Operating public education more as a private corporate concern than a public organization, they say, will allow these wise leaders to create quality public education.
This debate isn’t limited to public education. Nonprofit organizations face the same challenge of balancing the values of broad stakeholder involvement against the “messiness” of democracy. Chao Guo asserts that “wider constituent participation in nonprofit governance will not only help citizens develop civic skills and democratic values but also enhance the capacity of nonprofit organizations to work more effectively with their constituents and the larger community.” If this is true, we need to be very careful that our desire to improve education does not remove the public from our nation’s educational system.—Martin Levine