A time for school choice? If so, let’s make sure we ask the right questions

Students arrive for class at Mahnomen Elementary School in Mahnomen, Minnesota.

Will we have public schools a decade from now? What will they look like? For the first time since the 19th century, or perhaps since debates over desegregation, we are facing these fundamental questions. A recent article argued that the Koch brothers are investing heavily to disrupt public schools in Arizona. Current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promotes parental choice, including public support for private and religious schools. The recent tax reform bill expanded tax benefits for parents of children in private schools and almost expanded tax benefits for homeschooling parents. The number of charter schools continues to grow, and in some cities educate 40 percent or more of students.

In this time for choosing, we need to look back as well as ahead. In my recent book, “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America,” I sought to understand why earlier Americans expanded access to schooling, what they sought to accomplish, how they went about it, as well as their vision’s limits. While the book’s story ends nears the Civil War, it speaks to us today. Like school reformers past, we must determine what kind of institutions will best promote the purposes of democratic education.

Americans today are deeply divided over public education, and our divisions lead to different policy preferences. Research abounds. Do charter schools outperform traditional district schools? Do teachers’ unions improve or reduce student achievement? Should parents have the choice to send their child to a school that matches their own religious or political values? What will work?

These are all important questions, but they are secondary ones. The fundamental questions concern why we have schools in the first place. Without asking these, we cannot determine which policies best serve America’s future. Worse, we may focus so exclusively on one issue—test scores, for example—that we lose sight of the ends of schooling itself.

The goals of public school in early America

Why do we have public schools? For Americans between the Revolution and the Civil War, the reasons were primarily civic. They wanted, first, to ensure that all Americans had the skills, knowledge, and values to be effective citizens. As North Carolina state Senator Archibald Murphey put in an 1816 report, “a republic is bottomed on the virtue of her citizens.”They wanted, second, to foster solidarity during a time of increasing immigration when, like today, Americans’ divisions often led to violence. As the Fond du Lac, Wis., superintendent of schools put it in 1854: In a society divided by religion, race, party, and wealth, public schools would “harmonize the discordant elements” as students “sympathize with and for the other.”

Earlier Americans also argued that a democracy should develop every child’s potential. This required a rich curriculum in the arts and sciences. As the Rev. William Ellery Channing put it in the 1830s, every person is entitled to liberal education “because he is a man, not because he is to make shoes, nails, or pins.” Indeed, as one Alabama public school advocate argued, schools would not “weaken the self-reliance of the citizen” nor “destroy his individuality,” but “teach him to feel it.”

Finally, earlier Americans wanted to equalize access. At the time of American independence, education had remained a family responsibility. How did it become a public good? Here, the past speaks directly to the present. Convincing Americans to pay taxes to support other people’s children was not simple. Pennsylvania Superintendent Francis Shunk noted in 1838 that it was no easy task to persuade someone that “in opposition to the custom of the country and his fixed opinions founded on that custom, he has a deep and abiding concern in the education of all the children around him, and should cheerfully submit to taxation for the purpose of accomplishing this great object.”

Public school advocates succeeded not by arguments alone, but by building institutions. As Americans invested in and went to public schools, more parents wanted access. As demand increased, so did support for taxes. Horace Mann recognized that this cycle succeeded because most families had a stake in the schools. Wealthier families invested in other people’s children because their own children attended. If some families decided to “turn away from the Common Schools” to send their children to a “private school or the academy,” Mann worried that poorer children would end up with a second-class education. Unless all families had a stake in public schools, the Kentucky legislature noted in an 1822 report, schooling would be charity rather than a public good.

American reformers were right. Historically, the most successful public programs have benefited a broad constituency. When policies are seen as “welfare,” taxpayers resent their money being spent on others. Public education—like Social Security—succeeded because most Americans benefited.

The principles above guided public education’s advocates. And public schools were—and remain—among America’s most successful institutions. Our public schools struggle largely in places where poverty makes it difficult for students to learn. Our efforts to reform, then, must build on public schools’ immense historical success.

Past and future challenges for US public schools

But public schools have always faced challenges. For starters, public schools have never been truly common places. Catholics in the 19th century criticized the schools’ Protestantism and opted to build separate, parochial schools. As Catholics opted out, African-Americans fought for integrated schools that treated all Americans equally. But Americans did not really want to go to school together. After Brown v. Board, public policy and individual choices led to greater segregation and inequality. In the post-WW2 era, the real estate market served as a proxy market for schools. Yet this history also raises important questions for advocates of choice today. If Americans have used choice in the past to increase racial and economic segregation, how do we ensure that they do not do so in the future?

This presumes that we want our schools to bring diverse Americans together. Is that still a goal? The most compelling argument for school choice is not that it raises student achievement but that we are a diverse society. As Ashley Berner argues in her important book Pluralism and American Public Education, we can learn from other nations. She notes that high student achievement is possible in both common and plural systems. The more significant question is whether parents should be allowed to choose schools that share their values, including their faith.

Pluralism is one of the largest challenges facing Americans, and how to respond to it one of the most vexing questions facing school reform advocates. On the one hand, if we let parents choose schools, we may have to give up on the ideal of desegregation. Even if we find ways around this challenge, the deeper question is whether we need common schools precisely because we are diverse and need to come together as Americans. Or does a democratic society need to respect citizens’ diversity by empowering parents to choose their schools? As European nations become more ethnically and religiously diverse, they too are struggling with these questions. Will choice allow us to put aside the culture wars or will it deepen our divisions? And will we still invest in each other’s children if we no longer send them to the same schools?

Another important question we face is how to raise student achievement without sacrificing the various other goods that make up public education. We need to make sure that we care for and value the other things public schools should do, especially civic education, as Paul Hill writes. We need to ensure that Americans have a liberal education with a content-rich curriculum to promote critical thinking and students’ capacity for insight. Yet an unyielding emphasis on raising scores risks narrowing the curriculum so that our students have less time for literature, social studies, sciences, and arts. In the future, we must ensure that students have deeper and better opportunities to engage the arts and sciences. We cannot let one goal override all others.

We can enrich our conversations about the future by taking seriously public schools’ historical goals. The point is not that they got it all right in the past. Clearly, they did not. Yet the aspirations of the founders of our schools can help us focus on purposes, not just policies. At this moment, filled with hope and anxiety about the future, when radical change seems imminent, it may seem odd to ask the past for guidance. We need bold action, we are told. There may be—some say there must be—better ways to organize our schools than what we do now. That may be true, but successful reform must further our values and aspirations. It is worth taking a moment, therefore, to remind ourselves why our democracy invested in public education in the first place.