Better Governing Now » Public Schools Undergoing Historic Shift


Public Schools Undergoing Historic Shift

    Publisher's note: This post, by Bob Luebke, was originally published in the Education section of Civitas's online edition.

    In Part 1, we looked at Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) enrollment as an indicator of the growing gap between the educational options now available at the traditional public schools and the options parents actually want for their children. To better understand what is happening, here in Part II we have to look at the ideas and beliefs underlying American education throughout history.

    One hundred and seventy-five years ago, after being overrun by waves of immigrants, American leaders decided that state-enforced uniform education was the best way to make one nation out of many different groups. The public common school was the chosen as the vehicle to build democracy and to make people of different backgrounds into Americans.

    Those decisions were not without battles - most of which were fought on religious liberty grounds. Those who objected on philosophical, pedagogical or religious grounds - most notably Catholics - developed their own alternative education systems at great expense and sacrifice.

    Over time, the structure of American public education took shape. For the longest time, "public" has meant government-funded and government-delivered schooling. School officials claim instruction is ideologically neutral but in reality most public schools embrace a progressive tradition that many Americans reject.

    In recent years, those who have objected to these excesses have fueled a reform movement. Innovations in the form of charter schools, vouchers and online education have started to reshape our definition of "public education" away from the monolithic model of government-funded and government-delivered education.

    For example, WCPSS says it celebrates the diversity of the communities it serves. To that end, the district employs an assistant superintendent for equity affairs, who according to the job description is "responsible for developing and implementing short and long range cultural diversity, equity and respect."

    Today, however, many people find WCPSS and our public schools to be narrowly defined and lacking in the respect for diversity they allege to profess. The diversity of our religious, philosophical and pedagogical views warrants a reframing of our views on public education.

    A system that respects the values and beliefs of all individuals is an improvement over the current system. A model based on educational pluralism is better than our current framework because it acknowledges that education always rests upon particular views about what education is, what it's for, what role the teacher plays and what role schools play in the culture.

    We need a system that reflects those views and is publicly supported - but not exclusively delivered by the government. We need a system that honestly acknowledges that education always rests upon particular views and beliefs about schooling, children and the cultural context in which education occurs.

    One vehicle that might help with this transition is the Education Savings Account (ESA). ESAs provide parents control of a state-funded account. The account is financed via a percentage of state per pupil support and can be used to help pay for expenses such as tuition, books, tutoring, and testing services. ESAs allow parents to choose the best type of education for their child and gives them control over what is spent. ESAs truly empower parents.

    The heated discussions over school choice and its consequences can't be ignored. The new chairman of the Wake County Board of Education, Tom Benton, has accepted the challenge and said the district needs to be more innovative and competitive in recruiting families at a time when people like choice. According to a recent news report, Benton put it this way: "Now we're trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don't want to leave."

    That's a good answer. Let's hope it produces results.

    Diversity is a subject much talked about in WCPSS. Unfortunately, the topic has been limited to cultural and racial diversity. WCPSS - and all public schools for that matter - need new ways to reflect the differing religious, pedagogical and philosophical views of the people they are supposed to serve. When they succeed in doing so, the volume on our discussions about public education will be lessened and the quality of our children's education raised.

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