My View

The Genius of Public Education
By WILLIAM J. MATHIS/School Administrator, October 2018

FOR THE UNITED STATES’ first 200 years, the paramount purpose of public education was to nurture democracy. As defined in state constitutions, education was to consolidate languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth.

As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties ...”

In the 19th century, Horace Mann, America’s foremost advocate for public education, said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” Through the 20th century, universal education was credited with being the primary contributor to an equal and democratic society.

Pulitzer Prize historian Lawrence Cremin and economist John Kenneth Galbraith viewed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of the GI Bill as a critical boost to democracy and the nation’s economic power. Returning veterans were equipped with new and advanced skills.

With greater access, higher education became democratized and millions were lifted into the middle class. However, the Supreme Court’s 1954 case in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka forced the nation to recognize the gross inequalities of education in our segregated society. While we have made progress, our schools remain a reflection of the economic and educational inequities of our nation.

Shifting Purposes
Communities and schools are resegregating and the less affluent suffer from weak tax bases despite a long string of state court cases. Rather than addressing the root causes of unequal opportunities such as regressive tax policies, income gaps by race and by gender, and the lack of livable wages, it is far more convenient to blame the schools and the victims.

The new remedy, test-based reform, appeals to conservatives because it sounds punitive and to liberals because it illuminates the plainly visible problems and it is cheap. High test scores are falsely linked to national economic performance. In hyperbolic overdrive, the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report thundered, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

Declaring schools “failures” is used to justify the diversion of public monies to private corporations. After a half-century, no body of evidence shows that privatized schools are of better quality or less expensive. Large-scale voucher programs actually show substantial declines in academic scores.

In fact, privatization segregates by income, race and language. Privatized education is not equal education, and it does not have sufficient power to close the achievement gap. It imperils the unity of schools and society. It works against the very democratic and equity principles for which public systems were formed.

Beyond Individuals
Democracy cannot exist without equal opportunities and a core of central values. We came together and defined democracy with the common schools movement. With marked success, education became universal, but protecting the poor and those with special needs met with less success.

The genius of public schools is they advance society by strengthening individuals. Certainly, schools advantage the individual, but the primary purpose is to enhance the well-being of society. Thus, our success is not measured in test scores. It is measured by how wisely we govern, how well we manifest civic virtues, behave as a society and dedicate ourselves to the common good.

Our primary obligation is to embrace higher purposes and choose leaders who, paraphrasing John Dewey, will conserve, transmit, rectify and expand our heritage of values so “that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than when we received it.”

WILLIAM MATHIS is managing director of the National Education Policy Center and vice chair of the Vermont State Board of Education.