The following are my own personal thoughts and do not represent the views of Missouri Education Watchdog. They are written to open a dialogue about the purpose of public education. I believe having a clear vision of that purpose will make solutions to the many other issues associated with education much clearer.

Public schools are a government monopoly. They are indoctrinating our children. We pay too much for them. Our schools are failing. They need to be fixed.

These are common complaints about the public school system. MEW has examined all these claims, as have hundreds of other education focused websites. In most cases, the veracity of these complaints depends on one’s perspective.

1. Public schools are a government monopoly – Only if you are considering schools that are paid for by public tax dollars and perceived by most people as “free.” There have always been competitors to the public schools: private, parochial, technical, and home schools. The free market determines who has access to these competitors in terms of who can pay for them. Within the public system there are different types of schools: magnet schools, special needs schools, virtual classes, charters (as currently structured), so in terms of form there is some choice. What gives the public school a monopoly is that every child is required to attend if they cannot afford an alternative school, and every school which receives public dollars must follow the same basic rules and aim for the same general goals. This is how we currently define accountability and equity. The government has a monopoly on rules and goals.

The complaint about a government monopoly cannot be separated from the complaint about who the government is. Constitutionally it is supposed to be a government of “the people.” In the case of schools it is thought that “the people” are those who are paying the majority cost of providing the school. This should be the local school district. But more and more it seems to be a distant government of the wealthy and influential. It is a top down government more and more removed from the people actually paying for the schools. Requiring the rules and goals to follow the money and the child is what creates a government monopoly on schools. This rather obvious point, however,is tied to the other complaints and leads to the overall sense of dissatisfaction with public schools.

2. They are indoctrinating our children – If we can agree with the definition of indoctrination – the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically – then yes they are. But the fact that they are indoctrinating children is not the true source of this complaint. The real source of contention is which set of beliefs are they teaching. This relates to point #1 that government, not necessarily one of the people, in the name of accountability, sets the goals of what is to be learned. Parents will oppose accountability measures (e.g. testing, turn around plans, VAM) if they don’t agree with the beliefs contained in the goals set forth by a government which is not responsive to the people.

3. We pay too much for them. – “Too much” is a subjective term with no consensus on what the “right amount” might be. If you loved everything the school was teaching, your child was doing well and was happy, this amount might be higher than if you disagreed with any of those three conditions. Therefore, the “right amount” is based heavily on agreement to the terms of #2 and is somewhere below 90% of your income.

4. Our schools are failing – To fail means there is an agreed upon objective and some way to determine whether or not that objective has been met. You can fail a pregnancy test, but it is much harder to fail to be my boyfriend unless we have agreed in advance what your goal as my boyfriend is and how you will act to achieve that goal.  The rhetoric being thrown around about the goals of public schooling is neither clear nor objectively measurable and frankly in many cases it is not financially feasible. When goals are unagreed upon, unclear and unrealistic, it is neither possible to completely fail, nor to succeed.

5. We need to fix our schools. – Unless you have agreed to the terms of failing in #4, it would be imprudent  to  rush out to propose solutions for all public schools. Agreeing to those terms will require much more work on #2 which will result in clarity for answering the question in #3 and determine how much money you can invest in “fixing” schools. Yet most legislatures are rushing now to push through solutions to fixing public schools without clarity in points 2-4. They are creating or incentivizing alternatives to the form of public schools such as charters. They are creating alternative pathways to payment such as Education Savings Accounts. They are calling for more testing and grading of school districts. However, if they stick doggedly to the accountability elements they are going to run into public opposition no matter what they try. The answers to #2 and #3 are going to vary widely in a country as diverse as America. To develop a single answer that will work everywhere will most likely require that answer to be very broadly defined and fairly minimal. This was true even when we were a collection of only 13 states which is why education was not a power of the federal government. Yet the legislatures are not even touching the question of what is the purpose of public education, and are allowing the ed reformers to own that important piece of real estate.

The crux of the problem thus lies in the purpose or goal of public education. How to pay for and achieve that goal become clearer once we know what the goal is.

The purpose of education has been shifted by progressive reformers to something that is unrealistic and I believe financially unfeasible. A public school was originally a place where children whose family could not afford one of the other education options, could send their child to receive at least some education on very basic skills – the three R’s. Read and the world of knowledge is open to you. Write and create a permanent record of your thoughts and commitments. Learn basic numeracy to help you any time you need to measure, perform a financial transaction, or anticipate a numerical outcome.

Your family, church, and community would take care of teaching you life skills, manners, character, values and the law.

The mission of public school has shifted to include all of the above and to also somehow guarantee that you will be a fully functioning worker in the economy. It is unlikely that we will succeed in that goal in a system financed to only provide a very basic set of skills. To expect the fail safe system for education to be world class and capable of guaranteeing that every single child is a fully actualized human being is not realistic. We have had mission expansion to the point that we don’t seem to be doing any of those things well. The protesters at UC Berkley were educated by a system that taught character and values as well as the 3 Rs and we can see how well they turned out.

Then there is the fact is that we have a large population of people on limited fixed  incomes, who grew up in a system that did not do all of that for them, who not only don’t agree with the new purpose of school, they literally cannot afford to finance it. We could all define a public school that was great and produced amazing students, but if we can’t pay for that, our definition is pointless.

There will be no fixing public education or happy endings, unless we can we agree upon what we want a publicly funded school to accomplish that does not bankrupt large portions of society.

What do you think is the purpose of public education?


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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