So what else is new?
It’s been so since the first moment the institution was suggested in this country by revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson:
“Education is here placed among the articles of public care… a public institution can alone supply those sciences…”
And John Adams:
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.
But as the founders saw public education as primarily a means of securing democracy by creating informed citizens able to intelligently vote, that is only one of its many benefits today.
Compared to its main alternatives – charter, voucher, and private schools – public schools are more fiscally responsible, democratically controlled and community oriented.
However, these are not the most important reasons to cherish our system of public schools.
For all the system’s benefits, there is one advantage that outshines all the others – one gleaming facet that makes public schools not just preferable but necessary.
That is diversity.
Public schools ARE the American Dream.
They are the melting pot made real.
Where else can you go and see so many different races, cultures, ethnicities, religions, abilities and genders learning together side-by-side from adolescence to adulthood?
I don’t think you can understate how important that is.
When you grow up with someone, you can’t really remain strangers. Not entirely.
When you sit beside different kinds of people in every class, you learn that you and people like you aren’t the center of the universe. You learn that there are many other ways to be human.
And make no mistake. I’m not talking about mere tolerance. I mean seeing the beauty in difference.
I’m talking about seeing the grace and originality in black names and hairstyles, the fluidity of Arabic writing, the serenity of Asian philosophy…
When you make friends that are diverse, have different beliefs, styles, cultures, you open your mind to different ideas and concepts.
If children are our future, we become that future in school. If we’re educated together in a multifaceted society, we are more at home with our country’s true face, the diversity that truly is America. By contrast, if we become adults in secluded segregation, we find difference to be alien and frightening. We hide behind privilege and uphold our ways as the only ways worth considering.
In fact, privilege is born of segregation. It is nurtured and thrives there.
If we want to truly understand our fellow citizens and see them as neighbors and equals, it is best to come to terms with difference from an early age in school.
Integration breeds multiculturalism, understanding and love.
I’m not saying this happens in every circumstance. All flowers don’t bloom in fertile soil and not all die in a desert. But the best chance we can give our kids is by providing them with the best possible environment to become egalitarian.
Of course, diversity was not there from the beginning.
Through much of our history, we had schools for boys and schools for girls that taught very different things. We had schools for white children and schools (if at all) for black children – each with very different sets of resources.
But as time has gone on, the ideal embodied by the concept of public schooling has come closer to realization. Brown v. Board took away the legality of blatant segregation and brought us together as children in ways that few could have dreamed of previously.
Unfortunately, a lot as happened since then. That ruling has been chipped at and weakened in subsequent decades and today’s schools still suffer from de facto segregation. In many places our children are kept separate by laws that eschew that name but cherish its intent. Instead of outright racial or economic discrimination, our kids are kept apart by municipal borders, by who goes to which school buildings and even by which classes students are sorted into in the same building.
But it’s really just segregation all over again. The poor black kids are enrolled here and the rich white kids there.
The surprising fact is how much we’ve managed to preserve against this regression. Even with its faults, the degree of diversity in public schools far outshines what you’ll find at any other institution.
That’s no accident. It’s by design.
Each type of education has a different goal, different priorities that guide the kind of experiences it provides for students.
Privatized schools are by definition discriminatory. They only want those students of a certain type – whatever that is – which they specialize in serving. This is true even if their selection criteria is merely who can pay the entrance fee.
After all, the root word of privatization is “private.” It means “only for some.” Exclusion is baked in from the start.
By contrast, public schools have to take whoever lives in their coverage area. Sure you can write laws to exclude one group or another based on redlining or other discriminatory housing schemes, but you can’t discriminate outright. Yes, you can use standardized testing to keep children of color out of the classes with the best resources, but you need a gatekeeper to be intolerant in your place. You can’t just be openly prejudiced.
That’s because you’re starting from a place of integration. The system of public education is essentially inclusive. It takes work to pervert it.
And I think that’s worth preserving.
It gives us a place from which to start, to strengthen and expand.
There are so many aspects of public schools to cherish.
But for me it is increased diversity, understanding and integration that is the most important.
What kind of a future would we have as a country if all children were educated in such an environment!?
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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!