Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Long, Long Subversion of Public Education

Everybody talks about education, but nobody really wants to do anything about it. From Walter Karp's 1985 essay and review, "Why Johnny Can't Think":
The public schools of America have not been corrupted for trivial reasons. Much would be different in a republic composed of citizens who could judge for themselves what secured or endangered their freedom. Every wielder of illicit or undemocratic power, every possessor of undue influence, every beneficiary of corrupt special privilege would find his position and tenure at hazard. Republican education is a menace to powerful, privileged, and influential people, and they in turn are a menace to republican education. That is why the generation that founded the public schools took care to place them under the suffrage of local communities, and that is why the corrupters of public education have virtually destroyed that suffrage. In 1932 there were 127,531 school districts in America. Today there are approximately 15,840 and they are virtually impotent, their proper role having been usurped by state and federal authorities. Curriculum and text. books, methods of instruction, the procedures of the classroom, the organization of the school day, the cant, the pettifogging, and the corruption are almost uniform from coast to coast. To put down the menace of republican education its shield of local self-government had to be smashed, and smashed it was.

The public schools we have today are what the powerful and the considerable have made of them. They will not be redeemed by trifling reforms. Merit pay, a longer school year, more homework, special schools for "the gifted," and more standardized tests will not even begin to turn our public schools into nurseries of "informed, active and questioning citizens." They are not meant to. When the authors of A Nation at Risk call upon the schools to create an "educated work force," they are merely sanctioning the prevailing corruption, which consists precisely in the reduction of citizens to credulous workers. The education of a free people will not come from federal bureaucrats crying up "excellence" for "economic growth," any more than it came from their predecessors who cried up schooling as a means to "get a better job."

Only ordinary citizens can rescue the schools from their stifling corruption, for nobody else wants ordinary children to become questioning citizens at all. If we wait for the mighty to teach America's youth what secures or endangers their freedom, we will wait until the crack of doom.
And to his list of ineffectual "reforms" we can add charter schools and school vouchers. Although supposedly intended to give poor kids a shot at a decent option in the face of failing public schools, studies so far indicate that the majority of charters perform either no better or even worse than the public schools they are supposed to supplant. No, the real winners in the charter school shell game are the owners and investors, who game the system for tax breaks and siphon off badly-needed public resources, and whose millionaire/billionaire sugar daddies are using all the influence their bucks can buy to destroy the public system and turn education into just another part of their portfolios. And as for school vouchers, a GAO study found very limited to no improvement in student performance, while the amount of a typical voucher ($2-3K) against the typical cost of a private school ($8549) makes it difficult for a poor family to find a school they can afford.

It's bad enough that we have to battle the business model schools are being held to as it is; when you throw in the deliberate sabotaging of the system with charters and vouchers, the picture that emerges is of a nation that is in no way interested in real education for its citizens, but rather only business opportunities for the wealthy to create obedient wage slaves and money-making investments in a rigged system. As for the ordinary people who really just want their kids to learn to read and write? Well, they've been hypnotized for so long by the sparkly promises of the snake oil salesmen of the Cato Institute and their local pols that they're ready to swallow anything with a pleasing label. Hope you're enjoying that American stereotype of rugged individualism, because from here on out, you're on your own. Better learn how to install your own water treatment plant while you're at it.