Wichita, KS President Obama’s speech last week on the various hopes and goals his administration has in mind as they address the issue of public education in America gave rise to a little mockery here at FPR. And perhaps deservedly so; at a time when the globalist pretensions of the liberal capitalist order are being revealed all around us as often empty promises, talking about increasing the length of the school year by reference to the need to prepare American children for a “21st century economy” in the exact same way South Koreans are preparing their children for it does seem a little farcical, and not just for reasons having to do with the massive differences in our respective histories, geographies, cultures and environments. (Which is not to say that there might not be reasonable arguments in favor of rethinking a public schooling schedule that follows an agrarian model that is, unfortunately, no longer an option for the majority of people in a country where the suburban and urban population greatly outstrips the rural and exurban one, but that’s a different topic.) Much in the speech, however, was not at all silly: lifting restrictions on charter schools, encouraging merit pay for teachers, etc. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but these are reforms worth taking seriously.

But taking them seriously means taking public education seriously, and why would a reader of (or a writer for) Front Porch Republic do that? Well, for the obvious reason: we are all, in our various communities, members of numerous publics, and it has long been recognized by thinkers of any number of different stripes–religious, philosophical, poetic, moral–that achieving a certain level of general education (a basic familiarity with literature, history, science, and citizenship) makes for a better, more hopeful, more trusting, more livable polity. In saying this I am not buying into the mentality–indeed, I would discourage anyone from buying into the mentality–that the only education which matters is one which successfully directs one towards a university education and professional specialization. Not only is the promise which supports that mentality–a promise of an ever higher standard of living–economically false, but it is reductive too: it reduces human beings to a meritocratic measurement that ignores the larger meanings (meanings about the arts and sciences of living) which provide the foundation for the very idea of the education. Still, public education need not–and for well over a century in the United States, did not–justify itself in that way; the fact that so many teachers and administrators and politicians today do justify their work by way of such a mentality is not a good reason, I think, to dismiss the original concept.

There are a great many ways to take apart and consider this broad claim–questions about religion and schools, about parental involvement and funding, about federal mandates and local diversity. (Some of which I talk about more here.) But let’s consider here one specific criticism: school size. Public schools, we are warned, are always looking to expand their size, to leave behind their local connection to a neighborhood or town, and drawn in more students, engage a wider environment, and attract more money, which the government will happily supply (with its regulations following). Much of this is true; therefore, presumably, anyone who celebrates the kind of particular (limited, but all the more deep because of their circumscribed nature) virtues that “small schools” can offer ought to be wary of the promise of public schooling. That way lies consolidation and small-town extinction.

Some years ago, back when Mike Huckabee was a governor rather than a former presidential candidate and a current media personality, there was an argument over school consolidation in Arkansas, as there has been in many rural and semi-rural states over the past half-century. I was living in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the time, and there was a member of our church, a fine and profane rural gentleman, who taught high school (metal shop mostly; I can remember the delightful meat smoker he and his students constructed out of an old pickup truck) in the tiny farming town of Swifton, about an hour west of us. Swifton’s high school had perhaps 150 students; the student-teacher ratio was 10-to-1. It was your classic small-town school, and my friend rightly defended its accomplishments and its place. And he was angry, when I knew him, because Governor Huckabee–whom he’d voted for; he was a Republican, of course–was talking about school consolidation. Other people were angry too. Their anger was genuine and deserved…but it wasn’t the whole story either.

To give my friend’s side in the argument its due, I point to Alan Ehrenhalt, the author of a marvelous and much-cited book on life in the neighborhoods of Chicago back when local authority still meant something, who wrote about the controversy in an essay titled “The Dangers of School District Consolidation” in the journal The Responsive Community. In it, he correctly noted that those who advocate consolidating smaller school districts into larger ones usually do so meaning to provide “the widest array of courses for the best price” to students who otherwise would attend presumably limited rural schools. This observation was supported by one John Brummett, an Arkansas journalist and supporter of Huckabee’s consolidation proposal, who captured this perspective when he wrote that defenders of small school districts “think of education as service to the existing constituency. I think of it as a force for change….I think education should aspire to extend horizons further than the neighborhood college….It should introduce students to a remote world.” To say the least, those who take seriously the value of community should think twice about reforms that explicitly aim students toward some “remote” end; and those who take seriously the importance of local democracy should be taken aback at Brummett’s brusque dismissal of serving the “existing constituency.” However, condemning the lack of respect for rural ways of life which often characterizes educational reformers, and praising the communal involvement and participation that small school districts make possible, still doesn’t make it clear what a properly conceived appreciation of community should have demanded of Governor Huckabee. There is still the question of which community, which constituency, should take priority.

Huckabee, I would often note to my friend, was originally resistant to calls for consolidation. What changed his mind was a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that the state school finance system was inequitable and did not satisfy the education clause in the Arkansas Constitution, which states that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools.” With this decision (and the threat of a court takeover of Arkansas’s schools) hanging over the state, Huckabee felt that district consolidation had to be part of any reform proposal. His claim was that fewer school districts with a consequently larger pool of teachers to share would be able to provide a greater variety of classes to more students, thus presumably somewhat equalizing the great disparity in educational resources around the state at little extra cost. Huckabee originally proposed that districts with under 1,500 students total be consolidated–-which would have affected nearly three-quarters of Arkansas’s 310 school districts, except that he also proposed exceptions for especially isolated or highly performing school districts, whatever their size, thus undermining some complaints about long bus rides and “punishing” excellent schools. In time, his proposed was whittled down to only affecting school districts with fewer than 350 students. But this was far from a sufficient guarantee to most advocates of small community schools; protests by parents, students, and educators quickly spread across the state, protests which my friend frequently participated in.

What my friend often ignored, however, and which Ehrenhalt’s essay didn’t mention, was that the court case that began this whole process was vigorously pursued and supported from the outset by a coalition of parents and educators from some of Arkansas’s very smallest schools and some of the most committed rural-schooling organizations in America. It made perfect sense that they did so: the original plaintiff in the case which ended up forcing Governor Huckabee’s hand, Lake View School District, served just under 200 students total, had woeful facilities and little technology, with some teachers earning as little as $15,000 a year. Arkansas Chancery Court Judge Collins Kilgore wrote that “for some districts to supply the barest necessities and others to have programs generously endowed does not meet the requirements of the constitution.” This judgment against the unfair distribution of education funding and resources in Arkansas was cheered by advocates of small schools: the Rural School and Community Trust, which later condemned Huckabee’s consolidation proposal, celebrated the original lawsuit as an instance of a “little district that could.” In language not too different from Brummett’s focus on technical opportunity and choice, they argued in their brief that rectifying the $1800-per-student difference in state funding that existed between those districts in the top percentile and those near the bottom in Arkansas “would be enough to raise teacher salaries, hire more teachers…offer remedial reading courses…[and] provide computers for every classroom.”

One could, perhaps, ask the supporters of Lake View if they realistically imagined that the governor and state legislature could have come up with any solution that would’ve achieved increased state funding for these poor rural districts, given the American people’s deeply ingrained resistance to either raising taxes or widely redistributing property tax funds, that wouldn’t have also involved increased centralization of those same districts. But one can’t fault their intentions. Those who forced this issue did so because they took seriously the stated educational standards of the state of Arkansas–which is a community in its own right, with commitments and obligations that have long been skewed in their application. Ehrenhalt correctly noted that the bulk of protests against Huckabee’s proposal emerged from the sparsely populated towns of northern Arkansas; what he didn’t note was that the majority of such school districts are entirely or mostly white, while tiny school districts like Lake View, which have suffered the worst in terms of both funding and school performance, were predominantly African-American districts in Arkansas’s southern and eastern Delta region, whose sufferings and slights extend all the way back to the era of Reconstruction. A concerned citizen, I thought then, and still think today, must then ask herself: if there is (unfortunately) neither the will nor a plausible strategy for raising and equalizing educational funds across the state, how much force should we grant to the demands of those who defend the integrity of their local communities when such (certainly justifiable and even valuable) defensive actions may unintentionally help to perpetuate an injustice (the continuing decline of certain districts which will likely never be able to be able to provide an education comparable to that available in other school districts) within a larger community: namely, the sovereign state of Arkansas, which had an integrity and a set of constitutional obligations all its own to protect?

I was never particularly successful of making this tension clear to my friend, and perhaps I never should have expected to have been able to. In the end, it sounded to him like I was defending what Ehrenhalt concluded most advocates of consolidation end up defending: the notion that streamlining education by making it more consolidated, more efficient, more broad, sells away local community in the name of a “brave new world of education.” I hope that’s not the case, but when you have overlapping communities pulling on your senses of belonging and duty and obligation, splitting the difference may sometimes be the only route left to you. Thankfully, being on the losing side of this battle (and Swifton was partially consolidated; it kept its middle school, while the high school, including all faculty and students in town, were combined with that of Tuckerman High School, found in another equally small town about ten miles away), did not turn him against public schooling–he was, in fact, a bit of a crank about any real alternatives to education provided by anyone besides the whole community in a public way, distrusting the ability of parents and co-ops and churches to educate students in ways that weren’t likely to be “ignorant and racist” (his words, not mine). Coming from a family where home schooling is a common enough choice to make my own children’s attendance of public schools–and my wife’s and my defenses of that choice–a bit of exotica at family reunions, I kept my thoughts to myself. But I appreciated that, in the end, he and I could at least agree on one thing: that there is something to be said for treating the educational opportunities which communities and the state make possible as a common good, one that must be tended to, one way or another, at least as much by the whole, as by all its parts.

13 COMMENTS

  1. It is a good thing to bring reality to bear on parental patrons of government schools. It is a good thing to make them pay, in some significant way, for their beggary of the rest of us. It is a good thing to acquaint them with an economic cost for educating their children. They have no concern for the rupture of ‘community’ when they drive taxes and costs for the rest of us through the roof.

    With respects to the advertising department of Bell Motorcycle Helmets, ‘If you’ve got a ten dollar head [student], buy a ten dollar helmet [education].’

    Handwringing over the plight of parents and families who are too cheap to fund their own children’s education is pointless.

  2. Thought provoking post. I wonder what suggestions you have, if any, for solving the riddle. Assuming, since you’re on FPR, that you support decentralizing power, how do you do square localization with the Supreme Court’s decision and our current methods of funding education? One of them seems to have to go. Do you have a preference?

  3. how much force should we grant to the demands of those who defend the integrity of their local communities when such (certainly justifiable and even valuable) defensive actions may unintentionally help to perpetuate an injustice (the continuing decline of certain districts which will likely never be able to be able to provide an education comparable to that available in other school districts) within a larger community: namely, the sovereign state of Arkansas, which had an integrity and a set of constitutional obligations all its own to protect?

    Obviously we know how the centralizing liberal would answer this question. But it seems to me that only a centralizing liberal, or at least someone with centralizing tendencies, could even ask it. Now there’s nothing wrong with centralism as such, since some things (e.g. the army, the post, &c.) need to be centralized if they’re going to work at all.

    But the centralization of community is dangerous. It’s impossible in fact, of course, since only the tiniest state could be coterminous with a single community, but it is possible in theory (which is where we get the collectivisms of left and right).

    But unless one already has a centralized (that is to say, statist) idea of community, one could make sense of neither of the premises of Mr. Fox’s question.
    1) The question assumes that the state of Arkansas is a community. But the integrity and constitutional obligations of Arkansas do not constitute a community, unless we believe a community is some notional entity whose existence may be asserted from above.
    2) To assume that inequalities are injustices is to assume that the unequal parties exist in a relationship that implies an obligation of fairness. Most persons are not in such relationships. A father, for example, is not obliged to expend the same energy on all children as he does on his own, since kinship imposes obligations that “common humanity” does not. And a community, or at least a community that emerges naturally, is something like a family, and some sort of mutual obligations could be understood to exist there. If in a community, for example, some people claimed all the wealth or land for themselves, they could be understood to have committed an injustice against their fellows. In a community, one ought to “spread the wealth,” at least to a degree. But to assume that these obligations include a whole state (or as our President might prefer, a whole nation) is to assume a community where there may not be one.

    If we make these assumptions, we can ask the question quoted above.

    However, I’d like to think that there’s another way, since I don’t like the conclusion that communities need to fight all higher powers tooth and claw. It may be the rationalist in me, but that just seems uncivic.

    Any thoughts?

  4. Dennis,

    It is a good thing to make them pay, in some significant way, for their beggary of the rest of us. It is a good thing to acquaint them with an economic cost for educating their children. They have no concern for the rupture of ‘community’ when they drive taxes and costs for the rest of us through the roof….Handwringing over the plight of parents and families who are too cheap to fund their own children’s education is pointless.

    In some important, surface way I don’t disagree with anything you say here: the costs of education–particularly an education which aligns with the diverse and specialized opportunities afforded to those who choose and/or manage to climb the meritocratic ladder–must be paid, and you can’t forever maintain a system of education that partakes of this kind of largess which simultaneously can remain small. However, I suspect that beneath the surface we have some deep disagreements. Often, for example “the plight of parents and families who are too cheap to fund their own childrens’ education” reflects racial or class divisions that, if unaddressed, can compromise the very community which a public education is presumably designed to support. Even those who have no children, or who only home school their children, should–I think, anyway–recognize the civic imperative involved in assuming those costs in the name of results which can hopefully build egalitarian and mutual connections between all those in the community, both those publicly educated and those not. This isn’t a blank check for free riders, of course, but just a reminder that in a community, to a degree, we’re all in together, and can avoid the hard work of striving to enlist all in the common project, even those who may justly dissent from parts of it.

  5. Empedocles,

    I wonder what suggestions you have, if any, for solving the riddle. Assuming, since you’re on FPR, that you support decentralizing power, how do you do square localization with the Supreme Court’s decision and our current methods of funding education? One of them seems to have to go.

    You’re that there doesn’t seem to be any good way to compromise between these two different conceptualizations of education. I suppose that, as much as I recognize the Pandora’s Box that it opened, I’m unwilling to back away from Brown v. Board of Education; sometimes interventions are necessary in order to defeat local abuses, and if that opens up the local to a dependence on such (federal and state) interventions, that may be just the price that must be paid for our own willingness to countenance such local evils in the first place. It was the decision in Brown that introduced the idea that public education should be considered a “right,” and thus something to be legitimately assessed–and funded–in terms of equity and fairness. If follow-up interventions such as this are what to come, then I’m at least happy to see them happening on the state, rather than the federal level.

    As for the specifics of funding itself, I think the dependence of the public school system on property taxes is ridiculous, but that’s a slightly different topic.

  6. Why is it always the money that’s up front? Teachers’ salaries and computers and fancy classes… what about the kids? Here in Colorado where I live, high schoolers are forced to bus every day on dirt roads to another small town with a consolidated school. They spend hour and a half each day on the road. What kind of idiocy is this?

    If you want poor districts to have more money, then give it to them. It can come from a state fund.

    Frankly though, public schools are not about education, no matter all the rhetoric. They are about keeping kids out of the way, busy with mostly useless trivia. If people had any guts they’d do what the Amish do. Grow their own schools. Oh but those are religious! Gasp. We can’t have local values in schools! The remote intellectuals must overrule any such nasty thing…! Sorry, pet peeve here.

  7. [I]t seems to me that only a centralizing liberal, or at least someone with centralizing tendencies, could even ask it. Now there’s nothing wrong with centralism as such, since some things (e.g. the army, the post, &c.) need to be centralized if they’re going to work at all. But the centralization of community is dangerous. It’s impossible in fact, of course, since only the tiniest state could be coterminous with a single community, but it is possible in theory (which is where we get the collectivisms of left and right). But unless one already has a centralized (that is to say, statist) idea of community, one could make sense of neither of the premises of Mr. Fox’s question.

    Well, I suppose I’d have to own up to the “someone with centralizing tendencies” description, at least in regards to slightly more things than just defense and mail delivery. Education in even its most classic sense was tied up in notions of humanitas, and “humanity”–arts, sciences, the world around a person–cannot avoid at least a little bit of abstraction. This is where I find Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities valuable. Of course not even Rhode Island could be a “community” in a natural sense; given the limits of human beings, probably nothing over a couple of hundred people could be. And yet human societies have routinely invoked–“imagined,” if you will–larger associations that that, through reading the same local newspapers or pledging allegiance to the same flag or whatnot. Does that mean any and every state can and should drape itself in the label “community,” and start talking about treating all its members justly, etc., in accordance with that? No–or at least, not every state, and not in ever way. But public schooling cannot help but be, I think, one of those areas in which he have to historically–and morally–grant the legitimacy of involving the state as playing some sort of communitarian role. To content ourselves with the delivery of humanitas solely on the basis of how it is realized in very specific, limited, natural, community contexts is something that most of us (at least, as I mentioned above, since Brown v. Board of Education) has recognized is not entirely in the best interests of our polity or our children.

  8. Schools that are prevented from having any distinct character or vision, but are a bland and deadening outgrowth of the intentionally characterless state and national bureaucracy, are not humanizing (though some teachers working within them manage to be). Publicly funded charter schools, from the humanizing point of view, are far superior to what we normally call “public” schools. Obviously, with public funding we will never escape some kind of internal regulation; but if this could be limited to minimal and obvious skill levels and subject matters, it could make room for a wide variety of schools that are formed by distinct visions of what a human being should be.

    Schools whose identities are formed by a distinct vision produce better citizens, because they are more likely to have a substantive notion of the human good and of community, and so to think civic engagement and debate is worthwhile and important. Why should the students shuffling through hollow bureaucratic institutions ever come to think such a thing?

    Some combination weighted in favor of charters and vouchers would, I contend, end up serving every aim of education better than characterless public schools of any size. My only reservation about this claim is the one Russell emphasizes: race. But that is a consideration that really does depend a great deal on locality. (Evidence from my neighborhood, by the way, suggests that black parents, given the choice, would prefer church and charter schools where their children will develop better characters.)

  9. When I lived in Philly, the black parents there in the inner city were totally for vouchers. The parochial schools had long waiting lists — it was the kids’ only chance for something half-way decent.

  10. Russell,

    Not to be quarrelsome…I agree that we’re all in this together. All parents should be able to use their taxes for their own children –not only parents patronizing the government’s schools. All parents. Society benefits from well-educated students, even those or especially those in Catholic or private or home schools. I’m a Catholic, and the Documents of Vatican II specifically forbid such discrimination as characterizes the public school financing ‘racket’ as I would call it. The Church is right and the school boards are in the wrong.

    I’ve lived in four cities with my wife and four children; our children range from 23 to 14 in age. In each of those cities, the local gentry heavily patronized the public schools: mayors, doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, stock brokers, entrepreneurs, you get the idea. Heavily. The cars in the public school parking lots are at least as nice as those in my childrens’ Catholic school parking lots. I had the junk man pick up my own work car for $20. We’re no elitists here.

    It isn’t a matter of whether or not parents ‘can afford to’ provide for their own children’s education, rather of that education not being a high enough priority. I agree that there are families too brutalized by life to be able to pay for educating their children. In those cases, we should all share the cost. But there are families in the tens of millions who live materialistic lives and beggar their negighbors to subsidize their own children’s educations. With such un-serious families, nothing much can be done.

    As for diversity of student populations, most public schools are neighborhood schools: kids go to school with kids mostly like themselves. Catholic schools are fully diverse, in our experience. Hispanics, Somalians, Koreans, American Indians, Philipinos, etc.

    Regards.

  11. Public Schools might have been a fine idea if the so called “Public” a term to be used lightly, if at all…. would have not come to the conclusion that the act of seeing the kiddies off to school in the morning or dipping into and out of their homework at night satisfied all the requirements of that malleable term called “education”. “Education”…check. “Vocation”…check. “Entertainment”…check. Leave No Life Behind. Yipppee, I graduated and shall , in the end, follow all the rules of death as promulgated in the Code of Health Regarding the Proper Handling of The Deceased.

    The rat is smelled though and the public appears to be waking from the charade and perhaps this sinecure in State-Sponsored Penury will sharpen their wits a bit .

    I know, call me an optimist.
    Good Evening,
    Count Pollyanna

  12. But public schooling cannot help but be, I think, one of those areas in which he have to historically–and morally–grant the legitimacy of involving the state as playing some sort of communitarian role.

    Largely because of inertia, I can’t get excited about public schooling. Though, through the great efforts of my parents, I was not raised in the public schools, they’ve always been there, and they seem more or less a fact of life. (I think this is the “historical legitimacy” mentioned above.) I think most of us could hardly imagine a society without public schooling, and no one respectable is calling for the abolition of public education.

    But the similarity with public health care perplexes me a little. The moral case for supporting education from the public fisc can be made even more strongly for a public medical system. The public educator can raise the specter of illiterate children in making his case, but the specter of consumptive, scrofulous or dead children seems much more terrifying.

    One hundred years from now will public health care be something everyone accepts as historically and morally legitimate? The case against a federally bureaucratized medical system seems strong, but it may not even be intelligible once people get used to the government footing their medical bills.

  13. Sorry I was unable to reply for a couple of days, everyone; I was out of town on a camping trip with our church youth group.

    Mark:

    Publicly funded charter schools, from the humanizing point of view, are far superior to what we normally call “public” schools….Schools whose identities are formed by a distinct vision produce better citizens, because they are more likely to have a substantive notion of the human good and of community, and so to think civic engagement and debate is worthwhile and important.

    I agree completely. Obviously, there have been, and will no doubt continue to be, abuses under the cover of charter schools, and their opponents will make the most of them (the xenophobic schools, the Afrocentric or Christian Identity ones, etc.). But the whole point, I think, of public education is to add some degree of “public” or “civil” awareness–which invariably must mean at least some abstraction, some artificial broadening of horizons–to the communal sense that ought to already be there. When the schools become responsible–because of irresponsible parents and/or a rapacious state and federal bureaucracy–for the formation of the whole character of the student, then the demands of diversity bleach anything substantive out of what the schools might ideally have offered. Charter schooling is, I think, a very good way to get back the proper balance between preserving distinct, local visions and giving students produced by such the tools to reach out and engage a wider public.

    Dennis,

    Not to worry; I took no offense from your comments.

    I’ve lived in four cities with my wife and four children; our children range from 23 to 14 in age. In each of those cities, the local gentry heavily patronized the public schools: mayors, doctors, lawyers, bank presidents, stock brokers, entrepreneurs, you get the idea….It isn’t a matter of whether or not parents ‘can afford to’ provide for their own children’s education, rather of that education not being a high enough priority. I agree that there are families too brutalized by life to be able to pay for educating their children. In those cases, we should all share the cost. But there are families in the tens of millions who live materialistic lives and beggar their negighbors to subsidize their own children’s educations. With such un-serious families, nothing much can be done.

    I see what you’re saying, and again, I agree. Public schooling can become a playground to the most wealthy members of our polity; whereas some are looking to the public schools to provide the bare essentials for children who otherwise would struggle to find any kind of niche in our democracy, others see them mainly as a place to provide babysitting while they pursue their aggressive two-career couple dreams of material success. Or–and in some ways this is arguably worse–they make the schools a training ground for their own sort of people, throwing their energy into fundraising and organizing to skew the allocation of resources throughout the school district to make certain that all the scholarships, summer trips, swimming pools, and so forth are available to fill their children’s time, leaving the other schools in the district to fight over scraps. I fear you’re correct that with such “unserious families, nothing much can be done”…though maybe that shouldn’t stop us from grabbing our pitchforks and trying!

Comments are closed.