In Defense of Public Schools

A decade ago, I first made a name for myself in the American education system by arguing that public schools, which are the heart of our democratic society, are by example teaching students nothing about participating in a democracy.

That was at the beginning of the age of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the draconian federal school funding law which mandates standardized teaching, learning, and evaluation across the United States. That law continues today relatively unabated by the Obama administration.

Today, more than 12 years after the instillation of NCLB, a revolution is working against the anti-democratic nature of the process of public education. It is completely apt and necessary, and more people are getting on board with it every single day. This revolution has many sides, and the one I’m rallying against today is the demonization of public education brought about by advocates like John Taylor Gatto, who wrote, “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”

This little revolution actually began back in the 1990s, with peak teachers of that era coming from the 1960s and early 70s. They were the last of the “free” teachers, grinding their idealism into their students, who are today’s parents.

Their idealism enabled the parents of students today to see for the first time exactly what schools are doing to their children. Because of this, like never before, we as parents can see our kids pushed out of learning by overly-rigorous, anti-creative, dehumanizing educational practices.

The parents who don’t share that particular analysis or outcomes are leaving simply because it doesn’t seem right for children to experience non-democratic learning in a democratic society.

In turn, adult voters whose children have graduated or who never had children are divesting in public education by routinely voting down public funding levees and electing anti-public education candidates. Students are responding too by dropping out, either physically or mentally, by simply completing school without ever attaching to learning.

At the same time, corporate profiteers have raided public education by jury rigging curriculum and testing to meet standards set by politicians who are owned by corporations who are driven by profits. The extensions of this corporate-political-industrial complex include the school-to-prison pipeline and the American service industry, both of which are reliant on schools to fail.

All of this says little or nothing of students themselves, who are responding en masse. Growing up in routinely racially segregated learning environments with vast inequities according to their race and socio-economic statuses, well-to-do white students from wealthy families are systematically set up to succeed, while their counterpart students of color and low-income white peers are tracked to failure – routinely. With a small proportion of students set up for that success, the vast majority are mired in measures of failure, all the while more enticed by the fruits of a free society than any students in many generations.

“Successful” students experience access, ability, and engagement through modes of technology that have no place within public schools today, while the “unsuccessful” students struggle more against falling in the holes created for them than ever before. I know all of this not only because I have studied it and lived alongside schools during these transitions, but because I have experienced it, first as a student and a brother, then as a state education worker, then as a school consultant, now as a dad.

AND there’s more to the situation than all of that.

The situation is cynically ironic: these places, which are the heart of our democratic society, are teaching young people nothing about democratic living. And yet, they are, and we don’t notice. Its actually what we don’t notice that we’re not advocating for, and without that advocacy we’re loosing democracy right now, if only because corporations want it that way because they stand to make more money from our divestment in public schools and our disinterest in educating in a democracy.

On the whole, we don’t notice that public schools are the bedrock of democratic society: politicians don’t refer to them as such, teachers don’t embrace them that way as a whole, and students don’t learn that without the very presence of a free, universal, and public education our democratic society would cease to exist. We don’t remember what FDR taught when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The preparation he spoke of was not specifically teaching young people through democracy; it was simply the practice of education within a democratic society.

On the whole, we don’t recognize that the situation of “democratic” in schooling for a long time was simply defined by those three terms I used above: Democracy meant FREE, as in accessible without cost; UNIVERSAL, meaning that all young people could attend, not just the ones who were selected at will; and PUBLIC, meaning that there was a system of voting by voters which established, ensured, and sustained the free and universal components of schools. That’s the only way that democracy was seen as relevant to public schools for a very long time (both before and after John Dewey, if you’re an education nerd).

By these three criteria, the backlash that educators, education leaders, and politicians are beginning to sense, squelch, and plainly resist is apropos, if only because they thought they were doing their jobs, and rightly so, because they were.

But when that definition of Democracy changed to mean broad personal efficacy, active participation, and systemic transparency, schools simply couldn’t keep up, and its being made more challenging for them to catch up. That isn’t to sound apologetic for schools or the education system, either. The ways they’ve behaved in response to these transformations, including becoming highly autocratic, obfuscating public knowledge, and colluding with corporate interests, are deplorable. They necessitate critiques by people like Sir Ken Robinson, who said, “Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies.” This is absolutely true and evidenced in the responses of public schools to transformations in the world around them.

In the meantime, technology is leading a cultural transformation which is mandating social transformations which are [going to] drive institutional transformations in the United States and elsewhere. One of the transformations is that public schools must reflect modern conceptions of democracy.

President John F. Kennedy, who constantly reminded Americans to be active in the world around themselves, challenged that, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The ignorance of people who would work to eliminate public schools on the backs of them not being democratic enough undermines the entirety of this democracy.


So, while we’re tearing at the infrastructure and teachings of the public education system, we should keep the purpose, intent, and ability of schools in mind. We have to remember that Democracy is stronger and more aligned to the cultural transformations we seek than any other system of governance. Schools can, should, and must continue to be the greatest purveyors of that understanding. THAT is what I’m fighting for in schools, and nothing less.

The question of WHY public schools today are so compromised isn’t particularly addressed here, beyond noting that corporations benefit from them. Dewey gave two answers that expand on this. The first was obviously related, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”. The second is the premise for all my work: “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Socially, culturally, economically, and morally conservative people work to maintain status quo constantly; Dewey’s contention shows why exactly they fight against the empowerment of young people, and why I fight for it. 

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

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