It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children – from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond – could end up as our coworkers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what, and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good, not just to suit individual parent’s desires.
My granddaughter Ellie is almost 2. With each passing day, my wife and I worry more and more about the world in which she will grow up. We worry about what appears to be a celebration of divisiveness, ignorance, helplessness, and selfishness among too many people. We are particularly concerned about whether her education will help prepare her for a happy, successful life in troubled times. I know we are not alone.
In school – either by intention or by omission – children learn to make sense of the world around them. They learn how to treat other children and adults and how to regard others in the wider community. They learn whether or not they can participate in shaping their lives and that of others. They may or may not learn how to live, collaborate and respect all the different people whom they will inevitably encounter in their lives.
We can’t avoid it. What other people’s children learn affects each of us.
When she is ready to enter kindergarten, her parents, Eric and Laura, will probably ask us for advice about sending her to school. The answer is far from simple. They live in New York City where making school attendance decisions is a bit like desperate folks rushing the door when the department store opens on Black Friday. Making a decision will be challenging. Too many schools are maniacally focused on raising reading and math test scores. Too many are racially and economically segregated. I know that Eric and Laura will find a way that is best for their child. I’m confident that if their neighborhood school isn’t so great, my son and daughter-in-law will either struggle with other parents and teachers to make it better, find another, or move. Their individual freedom to make those choices is not the kind of freedom I value. It will not help Ellie grow up is a better world.
The easy short-term answer is, “Just worry about your own child. Do whatever you must to find the best school for her.” That is the thinking behind the current bipartisan embrace of three key features of charter schools and the renewed Republican push for vouchers: Schools competing for student enrollment; Parents competing for their children’s entry into the best-fit school of their choice; Schools governed privately rather than through democratically-elected school boards. As these strategies gain acceptance and spread, the result is to undermine education as a collective effort on behalf of the entire community. Divided parents and their communities end up with little collective voice. Similarly, without unions, teachers have no unified influence. Millions of personal decisions about what appears to be good for a single child at a moment in time is a recipe for divisiveness, not collective good.
I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition. Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted. Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?
Of course, some schools do a better job than others educating for life, work and citizenship. Some of those differences are a function of natural and unavoidable variation. But the big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortable stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum– whose lives are hardly easy or secure– to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.
Tragically, far too many parents have been forced to make morally and politically fraught decisions about their children’s education. Folks see the decision about whether or not to keep their children in a local school of questionable quality as a flight or fight decision. That is why the language of individual choice paired with policies that weaken rather than strengthen neighborhood pubic school is so insidiously successful. It is unrealistic to expect many parents who often feel disempowered to choose stay and fight. Instead, we need to build a political movement to do that. Narrow self-regard may be expedient, but it is self-defeating in the long run.
We all should worry and do something about the quality of education of other people’s children. Here are several reasons why. They apply to my granddaughter, but I think most other children too.
Other people’s children learn about whether and how to treat one another in school. Parents differ regarding whether or not they teach children to treat one another with kindness and respect. Some parents teach their kids to just care about themselves, and some teach them to also care about others. The same is true about schools. I think these are important, widely-accepted values. In recent testimony, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos–a parent choice zealot, refused to say that the federal government would act to ensure against discrimination. That is not OK! Every school, but especially any that gets taxpayer-generated support should teach kindness and respect. Kids don’t live in a bubble. So, no matter what other parents convey, other children my granddaughter encounters will influence her.
Other people’s children, of course, will eventually become adults who live and work together. Leaders across the business, public and non-profit realms all say that they value the same things among workers: good problem solvers, people who can collaborate and communicate well in diverse settings, and improve their talents and keep learning. No matter what and how well Ellie learns, she will be affected by others. Anyone like working with deadbeat, ignorant or nasty co-workers or bosses? Schools can’t solve ensure against all of that, but they sure can help. Leaving educational decisions up to individual parents and private charter and voucher boards is a recipe for too much selfishness, discrimination, corruption, and disruption.
Other people’s children will eventually become citizens. Some will vote, and some will decide not to. I hope that more people will vote and do so with the entire community in mind, rather than just one issue or the narrowly perceived interests of a just-like-me group of people. We would all be better off if more Americans treated one another and others around the world with increased rather than diminished decency and respect. Because so many communities tend to lack diversity, schools from pre-school though college can be a counterweight that broadens people’s perspective, insight, and empathy. Increasing funding for charter schools and vouchers–or worse, making parental choice the centerpiece of education policy is precisely the wrong road to take.
I won’t tell my son and daughter-in-law what to do about sending their daughter to school. I do not presume to tell other parents either. However, I urge everyone to get engaged politically at the local, state and federal levels to fight for broad equitable education for every child in democratically controlled public schools. I urge everyone to support elected officials who will roll back and eventually eliminate funding for charter schools and to steadfastly oppose vouchers.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He works part time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
His writings are collected at arthurcamins.com
Follow Arthur on Twitter: @arthurcamins