It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the measure of a society can be taken by looking at the policies that affect its children and youth. How children are nurtured and socialized reveals more about a society?s priorities and values than all of its public pronouncements or civic rhetoric.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the measure of a society can be taken by looking at the policies that affect its children and youth. How children are nurtured and socialized reveals more about a society’s priorities and values than all of its public pronouncements or civic rhetoric.
There are really two sets of questions we must answer when we consider our obligation to future generations. The first set has to do with our goals: What kind of education do our children have a right to expect? Whose obligation is it to provide that education? What are the civic skills and democratic values we must pass on to the next generation if America is to survive as an open society? How do we connect our diverse citizens to each other while still respecting their individual cultures and beliefs? The second set considers issues of strategy: How do we teach these things, once we have decided what “these things” are? How do we ensure that all children have access to educational opportunity—and that they come to the classroom physically and mentally prepared to learn what is taught there?
These are questions that cannot begin to be answered—or even addressed—in a brief presentation. But let me sketch out for you, in the next few minutes, the broad outlines of the current debate over the first set of questions I posed: the debate over government’s role in the education of our children.
As you all know, arguments about education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, I would suggest that the debate as it has evolved over the past few years is qualitatively different from most that have preceded it. Yes, we still argue about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; we still debate the merits of this “reform” and that, but the central issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to providing vouchers that will allow families to “buy” educational services in the marketplace.
People support vouchers for a number of reasons, but most supporters fall into one of two groups: those who believe that the market does a better job than government at virtually everything, like the political libertarians at the CATO Institute and similar think-tanks; and the cultural conservatives of the Christian Right. Groups like the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education (CEE) might seem like very strange bedfellows for libertarians, and it is certainly true that their motives for supporting school choice have little to do with market economics and much more to do with their views on morality. Christian Right activists often complain that the public schools don’t teach values, but what they really mean is that the public schools don’t teach their values. Many believe, as Robert Simonds of CEE has written, that “Atheism and many perverted forms of immorality are being forced upon all public school students, not just Christian students.”
Opponents of vouchers include the educational establishment—as you might expect, public school teachers and administrators are defenders of the public school system—as well as Civil Libertarians and Church-State Separationists. These latter groups see vouchers as a frontal attack on the First Amendment—part and parcel of a theocratic “values agenda” that includes support for school prayer, creationism, and opposition to abortion and gay rights. Opponents also include those who worry that vouchers are a pretext for “resegregating” America: As one commentator puts it, “The arguments in favor of vouchers often are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to bring back the days when ‘separate but equal’ was an acceptable way of life in America.” Even John Witte, an educational researcher who has evaluated the voucher program in Milwaukee and supports it, has expressed concern that the Milwaukee experiment has led to more segregated schools than would have been the case without it.
The most significant constitutional roadblock confronted by voucher advocates was the First Amendment doctrine of separation of church and state. The vast majority of private schools are religious, and as we have seen in the Milwaukee and Cleveland experiments, any voucher program that gives students and their families significant “choice” will include a preponderance of pervasively sectarian institutions. First Amendment case law has always prohibited direct public funding for religious schools, but proponents argued that for constitutional purposes, vouchers should be considered similar to the GI Bill, which gave soldiers tuition money to spend at the institution of their choice. The claim was that because the voucher goes to the parent and the parent decides where to spend it, any choice of a religious school is the choice of the individual and not the state. That argument won at the Supreme Court a couple of years ago, so vouchers are now an issue of state constitutional law and state policy preferences.
Erosion of church-state separation is a valid concern, just as the concerns of parents and businessmen about failing schools are valid. But those discussions, important as they are, obscure the real issues. The voucher debate is rooted firmly in the historic and quintessentially American tension between our individual rights and our collective civic aspirations, and it can only be understood as a manifestation of that conflict.
Liberal democratic theory emphasizes the importance of the individual as an autonomous, rights-bearing being. Libertarian philosophy begins with the construct of a “social contract” by and among political equals. Independent persons knowingly and voluntarily trade some of their rights and liberties for the promise that government will protect others. But because the state has an exclusive right to the use of coercive power, it is dangerous: the government that is powerful enough to protect is by definition powerful enough to oppress and exploit. Prudent people, recognizing this, want to limit the reach of state power. The reason the Anti-federalists insisted on having a Bill of Rights was to protect individuals against the improper use of the power of the state and the tyranny of the majority. We cannot understand the American experience without understanding its deep libertarian roots.
On the other hand, it is misleading to view our national history only through the lens of radical individualism. Beginning with Aristotle, political theorists have described citizenship as first and foremost a sharing, a process of forming community around things held in common. That sharing and commonality has been as important a part of the American character as has our individualism. There are few public issues that do not presuppose a civic understanding of, and broad agreement with, a common purpose, a shared vision of the public good. This constant tension between notions of a public or common good and our commitment to the rights of the individual is a truism of Constitutional law and partisan politics. In the last several years, renewed academic and popular concern with the health and importance of civil society, and the communitarian “backlash” against the liberal democratic emphasis on individual rights, have focused attention on the importance Americans place on the public good and the depth of our yearning for community. As America has grown increasingly multicultural, however, the work necessary to sustain that sense of an American community has become increasingly difficult. It is getting harder to achieve unum out of our pluribus.
Political philosopher Will Kymlicka has described our challenge: what is the basis of social unity and political stability in a liberal state that contains significant ethnic [and, we might add, political and cultural] cleavages? If communities are created and sustained by the things we have in common, by mutual engagements that build social capital, how do we transmit, support and reinforce those essentials without infringing upon the liberties of individual citizens?
The balance we strike between the libertarian and communitarian ideals has both social and economic implications. Private property and a free market economy are hallmarks of the individualism we protect; social welfare programs are concessions to the social capital/communitarian side of the equation. Education policy is in the cross-hairs of that tension between private and public goods.
Thomas Jefferson described the transmittal of knowledge in the following way: ‘He who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.’ Jefferson anticipated the modern concept of a public good: A good or service that will not be produced and delivered if we rely solely on the free market. These are called public goods by economists because their use cannot be restricted to benefit a single buyer or group of buyers. There is no way to produce a public good without producing a value to society at large. Economists tell us that the central public policy implication of categorizing something as a public good is that the state must play a role in providing them.
Voucher proponents usually don’t dispute the classification of education as a public good and (except for the most ideological libertarians among them) do support a role for the state: the role of funder. Where they differ from proponents of a strong public education system is on the identity of the provider of educational services. Privatization proponents argue that the market can provide more effective education and that government should therefore provide the money to individual families, allowing them to shop for the effective education that best suits them.
The problem with these arguments about comparative “effectiveness” of public and private schools, however, is the absence of agreement on what constitutes “effective schooling.” Is the mission of our schools to impart math, science and language skills necessary to obtain employment in an economy driven by sophisticated technology and international competition? To put it another way, to the extent that schools are supposed to provide a “public good,” privatization proponents define that good solely as achievement of a level of academic competence sufficient to sustain economic growth and make America competitive in the global marketplace.
Critics of educational privatization quarrel with this definition, arguing that even if private schools were superior at transmitting purely academic skills—and the jury remains very far out on even that assertion—the “public good” requires more than just transmitting literacy and technical knowledge. If, as they argue, education requires transmission of the basic premises of our political community, if it is at least partly a process of creating unum from our pluribus, the utility of vouchers becomes problematic.
In 1996, the Twentieth Century Fund issued a report on school privatization, in which the authors noted:
Under [vouchers], the educational funding stream flows directly from the government to private individuals without the mediation of a public system. Thus, education ceases to be a collective public undertaking and becomes instead a private relationship between each family and its school. Schooling ceases to be part of the public sphere; no longer a public service, it becomes a consumable item.
That, to me, is the heart of the question: What do we owe America’s children? Education for personal use only, or education for citizenship? Voucher opponents like Stephen Macedo argue that treating education as a “consumable” represents a significant break with American civic traditions. Macedo says “the last thing we should do is to simply ignore or assume away the civic ambitions that have been at the core of public schooling from the beginning.”
G.K. Chesterton once wrote “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed.” He was right. Ours was the first nation not based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but upon a theory of social organization. That theory—that idea—was incorporated in our constituent documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
In a diverse polity, knowledge of the creed, acceptance of the idea, becomes the primary source of social cohesion. Traditionally, in America, the public schools have been the mechanism through which we transmit our creed. As Benjamin Barber has written:
We have forgotten that the “public” in public schools means not just paid for by the public but procreative of the very idea of a public. Public schools are how a public – a citizenry – is forged.
Neil Postman endorses Barber’s point. “[P]ublic education does not serve the public. It creates the public.”
Barber and Postman define the nature of the public good to be provided as an experiential one: not only must we be concerned with constitutional competence and civic literacy in an intellectual or pedagogical sense, they argue, we must also provide environments that teach our young how to encounter, understand and go beyond difference, how to fashion American unity out of our incredible diversity. If we are to create and nourish social capital, we must demonstrate our commitment to equality by providing equal educational opportunity, and our commitment to community by the process of learning together. As Martha Minow has written
“[I]nculcation of the civic values of tolerance, equality, liberty, and democracy is defensible in a nation committed to and dependent upon these values. Schools that model these ideas are more likely to inculcate these values than schools departing from them. Such a model is best provided by the common public school, the school intended to afford children from all walks of life equal opportunities and a shared experience, even if a small percentage of families exercise their constitutionally protected right to elect religious or other private alternatives.”
The 19th century crusade for common schools was, like America itself, an outgrowth of Enlightenment thought, particularly Enlightenment views about natural rights and political equality. Proponents of public schools stressed the need to produce educated citizens, to cement the fabric of the nation by ensuring that young people would share a common language, political culture, and values. Common schools would provide a civic infrastructure upon which would be built a polity with shared political traditions and values. It was precisely this element of the public school mission that antagonized Catholics and others in the mid-nineteenth century. As one scholar has noted “[T]o a greater degree than many historical sources allow, some of the most basic and widely discussed conflicts around public schools have been the consequence of religious opposition to basic civic ideals.”
Clearly, the common school movement had economic roots as well: industrialization required a more literate workforce; urbanization required additional ways to supervise the young; immigrants required socialization. But it is equally important to note that, as one scholar puts it, “the animating ideology of the common school proclaimed that the public good could best be served by public, not private, education, because the moral and civic training of the young was the concern of all citizens, not just parents. For that reason, choices about education should be collective.”
At its extremes, the voucher war is a conflict between two long-standing elements of the American political tradition: our time-honored commitment to maximum personal choice and individual freedom on the one hand, and an equally compelling belief in the importance of a common civic infrastructure and collective interests on the other.
Privatization ideology in general rests largely on a view of government as a provider of services for “customers” rather than a shared enterprise of citizens. If government is, in fact, more than a service provider, if it is an important generator of social capital and an instrument of collective choice, efforts at privatization will be measured by a different set of criteria.
In a very real sense, the voucher debate is a lens through which we can understand different perspectives on those issues I enumerated at the beginning of these remarks. What do we owe America’s children? What kind of country are we trying to shape? Are we content to allow the public schools to serve—or worse—to warehouse the “leftover” children whose parents have neither financial nor emotional resources to place them elsewhere? What is the content of our common civic life, and can our public schools transmit that content? The rhetoric of education policy these days suggests that substantial numbers of people favor simply abandoning the effort. People are retreating from civic life—both literally and metaphorically. They are perched high up in their SUVs, driving to their “McMansions” in gated communities, from which they send their children to private schools attended by “compatible” students. That withdrawal from the fabric of our common civic life is very troubling.
What do we owe our children and grandchildren? So many things: safe streets, nurturing communities, equal opportunity, adequate health care…We owe them a society that places a higher priority on their welfare than on low tax rates. We owe them an education that equips them not only to achieve their individual dreams, but also the analytic tools to understand the world they live in, and the civic skills to function as full participants of a democratic community. To the extent that our public schools are failing to provide these things, we must fix them–not abandon them.