Why I Support Public Schools

In the early 1990s I was part of a research team looking at the affects of what’s called social capital (other people call it the civic health of communities) on long term community health.

We did a comparison of two Mississippi communities – Tupelo and Greenwood.  In the 1950s, Tupelo and Greenwood were quite similar economically.  In 2000, Tupelo had a median household income of $38,000, the state of Mississippi had a median household income of $33,000 and Greenwood had a median household income of $22,000.  Tupelo is internationally recognized for its economic development.

In the 1990s, the social capital of the two communities was equally stark.  Greenwood was a balkanized community.  Greenwood still had separate proms for black and white students.  Tupelo was a community with a culture of rich public discourse.  Tupelo certainly had its share of racial tensions but black and white community leaders agreed that they had healthy conversations that enabled the community to work together.

We interviewed nearly 100 people in the two communities.  When we asked people in Tupelo what made a difference for them they all pointed back to the 1950s when Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed segregated schools.  Tupelo residents said their community leaders (with the support of residents) made the explicit choice to move forward with integration.  Most people, white and black, stayed in the public schools.  Tupelo residents said this helped add to the community’s culture of working through disagreements and finding common ground that has helped spur the community’s economic success.

Greenwood chose a different path.  White families largely chose to leave the public school system after the Brown ruling.  The devastating effects of balkanization and apartheid education still linger today.

Public schools are one of the last institutions in our society in which we can come together with people of different backgrounds to learn from, about and with one another.  In essence, our public schools are one of the only places we have to learn and practice democracy.  Practicing democracy is more essential than just learning about it.

We live in a divided nation.  In America, we are becoming what I call "Accidental Extremists."  Yet history teaches us that prolonged division leads to one place: social decline and violence.  We see the results as our nation is unable to find common ground to deal with critical issues such as the unsustainable costs of Social Security, health care, and immigration (both legal and illegal immigration) to name a few.

Our public schools can be one remedy to our nation’s divisions.  This includes both traditional public schools and charter schools.

Now critiques of public schools will argue that government run schools limit personal freedom – the most basic of American values.  That’s true.  Public schools do limit personal freedoms.  Our nation’s history is full of limits on personal freedoms in the interest of democracy.  There has, is and always will be tensions between freedoms and democracy.

The magic of the United States is that we’ve been diligent about trying to find the right balance between freedoms and creating unity.  That’s been a key element of our nation’s and of communities like Tupelo’s success.  Sometimes we are better at finding balance than at other times.  The pendulum swings.  But, at the end of the day, we always keep trying.

Another criticism that is made by people who would like to see an end to public schools is that Government Monopoly Schools impose government values on children.  Well, the truth is that local schools and local government are a reflection of our community – it’s not the other way around.  If we feel that values are being imposed upon us, that suggests to me that we’ve given up trying to find common ground.

The essence of democracy is finding our shared values no matter how extraordinarily difficult that can be at times.  Sometimes we must endure extreme power struggles, which is never fun.  But, if we give up trying to find common values, then we give up our democracy.  Public schools are one of the places we can practices these skills.

Now, let me be very clear, I am not making the case that the status quo for public schools is ideal.  I believe we have a tremendous amount of work to do to bring our schools into the 21st Century.

Also, I do believe we need more competition within the public school system.  Competition can be a very healthy thing.  Charters schools and open enrollment are two ways to create competition.  We should be open for more ways to achieve healthy competition.

But, competition must be balanced (there’s that balance thing again) with access and equity.  Students and families need to have fair access to all schools.  Private schools, by definition, can’t pass this test.  Private schools – like private clubs – are designed to be exclusionary.  In our pluralistic society, there is room for private schools but these are not places you can practice democracy – you can only learn about it.

One more caution.  Reclaiming public schools’ role to build community and to build democracy is typically people’s third, fourth or fifth priority.  That makes sense.  Academic and personal growth should be at the top of the list.  It’s okay for public school’s community building role to be a secondary priority but it must be a priority.  If we are not intentional about maintaining public schools’ role as engines of democracy, it will slip through the cracks.

And, if we neglect this role for schools too long, our community is diminished.  Let’s learn the lesson from Tupelo.

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