Family Magazine

Thinking About Public Education

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.


Education of the young has been a human prerogative since the days of antiquity. From the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, to the common contemporary American citizen, opinions about education abound. As a public issue, government responsibility for education as it relates to equality of opportunity is generally accepted. However, the subject becomes contentious when addressing the question of how to best ensure a reasonable standard of educational outcomes. There are many interested parties including parents, schools, teachers, students, and local, state and federal authorities, who all have a stake in the education system. Many problems with education have been identified, yet adequate solutions are either elusive or controversial, and different viewpoints as to the causes and cures vie for control. The ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch said about education:

We may remark in general terms regarding virtue what we are accustomed to say concerning the arts and sciences, namely, that three factors are essential to the formation of a well rounded character: phusis, logos, and ethos. By instruction I understand the acquisition and imparting of knowledge; by ethos, askêsis. Natural endowments are inborn; progress is a matter of education; application, of meletê (exercise); while the highest excellence is the result of all combined. In so far as any of these is wanting, aretê is necessarily defective. Natural endowments without education are blind; education, where there are no natural endowments, is inefficacious; and practice apart from both is incomplete and must fail of its end. … In confirmation of these views I might say that the three combined and cooperated in the psychic powers of the men of glorious memory such as Pythagoras and Socrates and Plato and all who have won imperishable renown. Fortunate and favored of the gods is every one upon whom the gods have bestowed all these gifts. If any one thinks that lack of natural endowments can not be supplied by suitable instruction and practice in virtue he is very much, yes, altogether mistaken. For disuse destroys the best natural endowments while didachê improves even weak ones.


America’s Respect for Public Education


The first free elementary school in the American colonies, paid for by taxing local property holders, was instituted in 1644 in the town of Salem, originating as proposal from my ancestor John Endecott in his capacity as head selectman on the town council. Prior to this it had been British tradition to teach young children through endowed schools, a service not necessarily available to all. The Massachusetts General Court gave the order that rudimentary education would by law be provided to all children in the colony. It was believed that educating the young, including the poor, was a moral duty as it would lead to a society of good Christians who could all read scripture for themselves, but also “taking into consideration the great neglect in many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor and other employments which may be profitable to the common wealth.” (Mayo 141-142) The directive from Boston was not specific as to how this egalitarian grammar school education should be accomplished in each town. Salem’s council voted to have each parental unit come forward and propose the amount they could afford to pay for a year of education, but also that “if any poore body hath children or a childe to be put to schoole and not able to pay for their schooling That the Towne will pay it by a rate” (Mayo 142), meaning a general taxation would provide educational access to poor children.

Endecott and Salem notwithstanding, informal education was still the norm in the American colonies around the time of the Revolutionary War, with each family handling the educational needs of their own children. Teaching was not always done by trained professionals, but also by relatives and apprenticeships. But this was the Enlightenment period, and many of our Founding Fathers were true political philosophers, most notably Thomas Jefferson. The man who penned our Declaration of Independence, the third American President, and like Governor John Endecott, was a pioneering proponent of public education. Jefferson’s primary concern was the enlightenment of the whole of civil society for the maintenance of a free and vibrant democracy. He wanted the wealthy and the poor educated alike in skills and virtues, at the expense of the public, for the preservation of liberty and open government. Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (Cochran, Malone 315) In 1806 Jefferson proposed a Constitutional amendment that would institute Federal support for public education, but America was not yet ready for this level of egalitarianism and liberty.

In more contemporary American philosophical thought, John Rawls and Robert Nozick (Cochran, Malone 252-253) have argued from directly opposing views on education policy. Rawls contends that education should be equal for all, and steps should be taken to reduce the inequalities that come with social class and existing economic standing. He sees investment in education equality not only to be the morale choice for society, but a pragmatic choice for ensuring greater future prosperity for everyone. Nozick, on the other hand, advocates an educational policy that removes the burden from the public all together, and places it squarely on the market. This would mean that individuals would not have to sacrifice property, which they have rightly acquired, in order to subsidize someone else’s educational benefits. Nozick’s position promotes pure, unfettered liberty, at least as a justification, but it does not take into account the consequences of such a policy beyond perhaps a general belief that the market will always make things better. Both points of view reflect the tension between equality and liberty in our society.

Equality and liberty are two enduring American ideals that have been deeply ingrained in our country’s collective psyche since its inception. These concepts are the driving forces behind our form of government and economic system, respectively. Our respect for Democracy, along with the principle of one person one vote, has at its core, the belief that all are created equal. Our respect for Capitalism hinges on the idea that we are all endowed with free will, and have a right to the fruits of our own labor. The founding fathers did not consider the concepts of liberty and equality to be mutually exclusive, but two hundred plus years of American experience has shown that there is, at the least, a tension between them. The trade-off between liberty and equality is apparent in the opposing arguments about what degree education should be public or private.

In order to determine the best educational policy, it is helpful to understand the different roles public and private goods have in the economy, and the society as a whole. When a good is private, it is rival and exclusive, which means that its consumption or use is limited to one individual and as a result others cannot freely consume or use it. The mocha I drank earlier today was a private good. When a good is public, its use by one individual does not preclude its simultaneous use by others, like National Defense and dialing 9-1-1. Currently in the US, the educational system is a mix of public and private institutions, in which resources and outcomes are not equally distributed, even amongst public schools.

I have not encountered many who agree with Nozick’s belief that we should end public education all together, and I certainly do not accept that point of view. Nor do I favor the status quo, which I consider insufficient in preparing young Americans for the global economy and labor pool that they will surely be competing in. This leads me to agree with John Rawls’ viewpoint, and conclude that we need more funding and attention given to public schools. It is entirely possible that educational outcomes will be inherently unequal no matter how level the playing field is made, but the fact that we are falling behind other countries in math and science implies that there is more we should be doing. However, I still think that there is a role for private institutions as well. Blocking parents from purchasing a superior quality of education for their offspring than what is normally afforded to the general public would do nothing more than artificially set the bar on potential achievement. Plus, it could drive affluent people to ship their children overseas to get educated instead. The public school system should be made more equitable, and equal distribution of public resources should go to that end, but private institutions still need to exist, even if just to raise the bar.

Since a better education and a highly skilled labor force increases the aggregate supply of goods and services in the economy, it is a supply side factor which leads to future economic growth potential. This is the view of human capital theorists, who see a direct relationship between growth and education. Many conservatives refer to President Kennedy’s famous quote about rising tides lifting all boats when discussing the merits of supply side economic policies. I would suggest that the policies usually referred to during such talk, like deregulation and tax cuts on capital gains, do more to increase the size of the boats than they do to lift the tide directly. However, investment in education, if it improves outcomes, is a true rising tide to lift all boats.

My Own Experience With Public Education

My public education experience was fairly diverse, which hopefully adds perspective. I attended elementary school in Oregon, transferred to California, and then to Washington, so diverse for the West Coast at least. I finished middle school and started high school in Salinas, CA, before finally getting my diploma from Redmond High School in Washington. I struggled with reading early in elementary school, and had to attend a special education class to bring me up to speed, which was a resounding success it turns out. I instantly acquired a lifelong love of reading, and by the time my family moved to California when I was in the third grade I was writing book reports about subjects like World War II and D-Day. The quality of education I received in elementary school, in all three states, was relatively decent and comparable, except Salinas.

Both my middle and high school years in Salinas provided me with a stark contrast to the educational environment I had experience before and since. Salinas has a large Hispanic population. Just as they are a minority in the US, I was a minority to them, being a small white red-haired and freckled kid, I was very much different in physical appearance and social stature. This resulted in negative and violent social treatment from some of the more sordid students. There were three different prominent gangs that attended my high school, and the year prior to my enrollment there, two football players were killed on campus in a drive-by shooting. This was a hostile educational environment, and I was able to experience firsthand what it might be like for the traditional minority students in the American public school system. Regardless of the local demographics, like poor immigrant neighborhoods, I did not perceive that the quality of the teachers and curriculum were subpar. The real problems with the learning environment came from the other students themselves, not all of them of course, but enough that they were much more a clique, or perhaps a faction, than a few individuals. For me there was always a climate of fear, and concentrating on school work always felt secondary to maintaining a low profile and not making eye contact with the wrong students, an invitation for conflict.

Socially, the public school environment in Redmond, WA was like night and day, compared to Salinas, but the quality of the faculty and curriculum felt about the same. Perhaps counter-intuitively, my academic performance in Redmond was much poorer than it was when I lived in Salinas. I suspect this was due to a newly found focus on my social life, inside and outside of school. The quality of the teachers and curriculum between Salinas and Redmond did not seem all that different to me, but the social atmosphere and discipline of the schools was night and day. And this was mostly being driven by the students. The scariest day at school in Salinas was leaving campus with some friends for lunch, and coming back to a street lined with red raggers and blue raggers on opposite sides, throwing out insults and flashing signs, with the school’s Vice Principal and a line of police officers standing in the middle of the street between them. The scariest day at school in Redmond was when the teacher’s kept us hunkered down in dark classrooms during a freak wind storm that blocked all the roads to the school with downed evergreens and power lines. It is easier to focus on learning when the chaos of nature makes a rare disturbance than when the chaos of teenagers is frighteningly common.

Concluding Thoughts About Reform Attempts

With public education there is much controversy these days. America’s schools are failing in many districts, but succeeding in others, and no matter how much money is thrown at the bad situations they only seem to get worse. We have tried to leave no child behind, with the threat of diminished funding for districts who fail standardized tests. Many believe that teachers unions and the inability to hold teachers accountable to achievement standards is the problem, and a conservative solution to this is charter schools, a system of public schools which sit outside the normal system, ran by corporations outside the control of local school boards. The idea is that competition for students would improve the entire school system. However, charter schools have demonstrated ever poorer results than the legacy public education system, and bring new challenges to education such as the possibility of bankruptcy and collapse of a school system, leaving young students with no educational program all of the sudden (Cochran, Malone 320). Other ideas, like vouchers and greater privatization have been proposed, but this seems more like cannibalization of education to me, and seems a sure path to greater inequality and class stratification.

My personal experience with the public education system leads me to judge it as relatively equal and sufficient as far as the logistics go, but highly varied in regards to the local demographics, especially economic status. Therefore I am skeptical of well intentioned programs aimed at improving school districts that need help. I feel the education I was being offered was consistent geographically, and the primary determinant of academic performance was the set of complex social and demographic factors that affected students. Student-centered analysis focuses on the inequities of learning that stem from individual factors like heredity and culture, while a school-centered analysis looks at problems associated with the educational process itself. I think the problems with public education are both school-centered and student-centered, so the solutions will need to be both as well.

Jared Roy Endicott

Cochran, Charles L., and Eloise F. Malone. Public Policy: Perspectives and Choices. Third Ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005. Print.

Mayo, L. S.. John Endecott: A Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936. Print.


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