With conservatives refusing tax increases and liberals resisting entitlement cuts, the discretionary spending bucket is the easiest place for both parties to find a palliative for the nation’s maxed-out deficit headache.
Thus, funding for public education is vulnerable right now—and the institution itself needs defenders. As one pushing for innovation in education, I have come under fire by skeptics who think that by calling for innovation, I intend for the system’s gradual spinoff out of the public sphere. True, I hope for a transformation of public education, but my desire is only for its improvement, not its demise.
Why is public education in America important? Here are five key reasons:
1. Public education is a vital complement to America’s constitutional republic. From the start, the founding fathers considered public education as essential to upholding the liberties of the new democracy and instilling the public virtues requisite for civil society. George Washington called upon schools to teach citizens “to value their own rights” and “to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness…with an inviolable respect to the laws.” Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and others were staunch supporters of public schooling. (See chapter one of Richard Rothstein’s Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right). The public has an interest in subsidizing the literacy and socialization of its people.
2. Public education allows society to shape the next generation. A private education system does not allow for the crucial debates about what citizens need to know to advance the common good. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor believes children need more knowledge of civics. Others want environmental education. Voters in California are collecting signatures for a ballot referendum to overturn a first-in-the-nation law that requires public schools to teach the contributions of gays and lesbians in social studies lessons. Public schooling gives citizens the opportunity to engage in the difficult, but crucial, exercise of determining what taxpayer-funded education should include.
3. Public education gives shelter to kids. Last year one of the girls in my town lived in a homeless shelter with her mother and brother. Her mother had left a physically abusive marriage and ended up on the streets. Every morning she arrived at school visibly upset, but as she calmed down and joined the class, she was able to enjoy six hours in a safe room with a hot lunch and steady routine. Children from troubled homes need free and universal school.
4. The Information Age requires highly skilled workers. Michael B. Horn makes the point that when Jefferson originally envisioned public education, he did not anticipate that it would launch all students to college. In 1892, only about 4 percent of high-school-age youth attended secondary school. The factory-based system of the Industrial Age allowed for a siphoning off of students along the way. But today’s economy is more sophisticated, and America’s competitiveness hinges on producing highly skilled workers. A study by Georgetown University found that by 2018, almost two-thirds of all occupations in the United States will require at least a college degree. Public funding for all students is critical to the economy.
5. Public education is amendable. Many indicators point to dysfunction in America’s public-school system. Just as the power of amendment exists to fix dated elements of government design, it can pave the way for innovation in the public schools. Unlike almost all other sectors of the economy, the public-education sector is stuck in the mindset of the late 1800s. The most important thing policymakers can do to update the system is to engage in the difficult debates around what America expects from public education, and then free up funds to flow to whatever providers, classrooms, and technologies deliver those outcomes.
This is the design for modern public education, a system that America cannot do without.
Heather Clayton Staker is a senior research fellow at Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation. She focuses on the blending of online learning into brick-and-mortar classrooms.