Examining the persistent tensions in US public schools

How did America’s public school system come to be? According to Johann Neem, author of “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America,” the founders of the American republic had three fundamental goals for the public school system: to educate citizens, to develop human beings’ capabilities, and to unify a diverse nation. Neem feels that in the midst of the many disputes that mark the politics of education today, we are increasingly drifting from the core purposes of public education. In our heated debates about student achievement, charter schools, and unions, Neem says, “We’ve lost sight of why America has public schools in the first place.”

The Brown Center for Education Policy at Brookings recently hosted a panel of education experts to discuss these very issues. The panel included Neem of Western Washington University, Alex Hernandez, a partner of the Charter School Growth Fund, Julie Reuben, a professor at Harvard University, and Gerard Robinson, Resident Fellow in Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brookings Senior Fellow Bill Galston moderated the panel.

Neem opened the panel with a discussion of what the Founding Fathers envisioned for a public school system. Beyond the familiar focuses of nurturing citizens and providing quality education, one of their primary goals was integrating a diverse citizenry to work together, eventually thinking of each other as members of a common nation. To this end, the blending of different economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds was thought to be a crucial function of public schooling. Thinking about this foundational goal, Neem urged us to ask ourselves: “Do we see ourselves as fellow Americans? Are we able to find enough common ground to educate our children in common schools? Do we trust each other enough to do so?”

Much of the panel’s discussion focused on enduring tensions within the public school system, especially between diversity and community. Exploring this theme, Galston asked: “If we increasingly exist within communities of the like-minded, how do public schools today achieve their foundational goal of e pluribus unum?” Reuben urged us to work against the assumption that simply allotting resources to each district—with no further goals for developing interdependence between diverse groups—is going to lead to a greater sense of community. “We need to rethink school districts as the unit of governance,” Reuben said. “We need to do away with the current boundaries and think about how to empower people to create new schools in joined communities, and how to create incentives for people to join together in community across difference, and hope that the school itself creates a greater sense of public.” Hernandez pointed out that there were 130,000 school districts in 1930s America, and just 14,000 today; the notion that school districts are hyper-local institutions deeply embedded in their communities is a misrepresentation of the actual dynamics at play.

The discussion turned to another source of tension: education as a leveler of the proverbial playing field, while simultaneously elevating the best and brightest minds Galston noted that while education can be a great promoter of parity, Thomas Jefferson conceived of schools as sorting mechanisms, inherently separating people into groups of varying educational levels with often clashing values; look no further than the divide between populism and elitism in today’s politics, Galston said. Neem points out, however, that Jefferson envisioned the people who emerged at the top of the education system would see their role as caring for the public good; “I think we’ve lost that in our meritocratic race for prestige and status,” he concluded. Reuben said that while schools allow for individual social mobility, a student’s ability to have success, particularly economic success, is influenced more by the family and other policies unrelated to education. Therefore, she says, “Parents should pick schools that will help develop their children’s character and moral sensibilities,” not just schools that will help their kids get ahead. Robinson echoed the importance of education’s power for social mobility, but cautioned against turning conventional education into a “holy grail.” He continued, “We may be putting too much pressure on schools to teach things that families and civil society should be doing. … You don’t have to go to college to become a truly educated person.”

Overall, panelists agreed that rethinking aspects of America’s schools could produce tangible benefits for our democracy, and that policymakers should look to the history of public education to provide clues for improving the system. “What credible institutions have the ability to reanimate U.S. democracy?” asked Hernandez. “I’d like to think it’s our public schools.”

You can listen to audio and watch the full event are available here: The past, present, and future of democratic education in America.

Michaela Worona contributed to this post.