Government vs. Commercial

During his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist, of the “no new taxes pledge”, doubled down on this line of thinking with his goal to “to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This GOP focus on government as the problem helps explain why those out to kill district schools refer to them as “government” schools. After all, “government” is the problem so how can “government” schools be any kind of solution for America’s students?

Yet the truth is that there are great district schools, great charter schools, great private schools and yes, even top-notch home schools. Of course, there are bad examples of all these options. Each option is just one of the tools in our country’s educational tool kit. The most useful tool in the tool kit by far however, (as proven by the 94.3% of American students who use it), is our system of public district schools. Charter schools have been around for twenty-five years, yet the overwhelming “school choice” for American families is still district schools. There is a place for other school choice options, but it shouldn’t be first place. Not in terms of taxpayer funding and not in terms of our nation’s focus.

Most families didn’t make this choice because they had no other options. Rather, they chose to send their children to district schools because those are the schools in their communities, those are the schools that offer a more diverse experience with a wider array of extracurricular programs and, those are the schools that are locally governed and therefore provide recourse when it is needed. The “haters” can refer to these choice schools as “government” schools, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of American students, they work. Our community public schools helped make America great and, they continue to be integral in keeping it that way.

For those who insist on referring to our district schools as “government” schools, I say “sticks and stones…”. Don’t be surprised though when I refer charter and private schools as “commercial” schools. After all, the vast majority of charter schools, whether for-profit or non-profit, are business entities. Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions of commercial. The first is “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce.” Then, there is “being of an average or inferior quality” or “producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success.” There is also, “viewed with regard to profit”, “designed for a large market”, “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business”, and “supported by advertisers.”

Some of these definitions fit commercial schools better than others. We’ve all heard stories about the “fly by night” schools set up for “quick market success” but then fail their students. We also know that some charters are big chains “designed for a large market.” And, there can be no doubt that the corporate reformers with their mantra of “school choice” have been focused on “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business” to ensure a trained workforce to meet their needs.

This focus on developing a trained workforce is just one step away from replacing the idea of citizens in our democracy with consumers focused on nothing more than what’s in it for me? This attitude helps drive the concept of “backpack funding”, where taxpayer dollars for education follow the student and the hell with those left behind.

An encouraging note though in a very crazy election year is that of young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As Harry Boyte writes on Moyers & Company, “championing public goods – from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision – suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth.”

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

So, send your kids to those “commercial” schools if you want, my money is on our community district schools to prevail at both providing ALL our children well-rounded educations and, at helping ensure our democracy stays strong.

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