Wednesday, December 22, 2004

COLUMN -- Public Education: Is it about the system or the kids?

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:28 AM |  

Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004

The easiest battles are against those enemies created by one's own arrogant imagination.
So it comes as no surprise that in response to my column, "The moral imperative for school choice," the newspaper columnist who first tarred St. Paul's Maxfield Elementary as "a school with not enough books" resorts to abusive ad hominem attacks instead of dealing with fundamental issues raised by the concept of school choice.

As a citizen journalist, a position I hold because of the integrity and courage of the Pioneer Press in publishing views not found elsewhere in Twin Cities newspapers, I am keenly aware of my obligation to reward the newspaper's trust and readers' expectations by providing substance (not slander). Frankly, were I to use my column inches on personal vendetta, I would not only betray the integrity of my newspaper and the trust of its readers, I would be strikingly unprofessional.

That unpleasantness out of the way, let's look at the essence of what school choice is all about. With the issues on the table, debate and discussion replace invective and innuendo.

Consider what is meant by "public education."

Public education is a necessary ingredient of a democratic society. It is fundamental to making informed decisions about public and private affairs. It is necessary to ensure a vital work force with the imagination to create new industries and new jobs and the adaptability to staff the jobs of the future. Public education is essential to preserving the fundamental values that make America a unique nation while integrating new influences that will keep her vibrant into the future.

In short, "public education" is education in the public interest. It is a "public good" in the sense of "benefit to all." It is worthy of tax dollars. But "public education" is NOT the private fiefdom of the tenurial few. "Public education" is NOT equivalent to a government monopoly. It is NOT a specific institution.

"School choice" is committed to the concept of "public education" in the public interest, not to any specific method of delivering knowledge and skills. A vital "public education" system consists of a diversity of educational options — government-run schools, charter schools, private schools, religious schools and a plethora of other options.

Furthermore, "school choice" means that when any educational institution is not meeting the needs of any individual student, that student has an actionable alternative — a choice. A public education system has a moral obligation to both provide that alternative and make it actionable — for all students.

There will always be good schools and bad schools — public and private, secular and religious. School choice simply asserts that all parents, regardless of income, ought to have the freedom and the means to seek out the good schools and escape the bad.
A reasonable person will immediately note that well-to-do people who send their children to private and religious schools and select schools by choosing where to live already have school choice. Who does not have a choice in education? Low-income kids in inner city schools — the very kids that for some unfathomable reason the education establishment insists must stay in schools that are fighting for "survival."

Former Milwaukee Superintendent of Public Schools Howard Fuller, who spoke recently in St. Paul (sponsored by the Partnership for Choice in Education and various civic organizations), is a bit more aggressive on this point than I would be, but then as a black man that for the better part of his life has "bled" to free minority kids from failing schools, he is entitled to a little anger.

"We have to ask why people do not want low-income parents to have choice," he says. "The hypocrisy on this point is phenomenal. We have teachers teaching in schools that they would never put their own children in and then demanding that somebody else's children stay there. We have public school teachers putting their own children in private schools. … The argument always comes down to 'If we let these poor parents out, it will destroy the system.' I have a question: Is it about the system, or is it about the parents and the children?"

In "The moral imperative for school choice," I asked the question — Is it ethical for "public" education to deny children and parents the choice of a school that meets their needs regardless of their economic situation? This citizen journalist's question was ignored by the "professional" in favor of the epithet "Captain Fishsticks" — an imaginary enemy less daunting than logical, reasonable debate.

He misses the point; this issue is not about him. It's not about the system. School choice really is about "the children."

UPDATE: Check out this great post at SCSU Scholars that takes the distinction between "public education" and the delivery system for "public education" to the next logical, economic level. Also read the comments posted. Another great discussion underway.