Change We Can Believe InNovember 7, 2008
Joe the LawyerNovember 10, 2008
Eduwonkette has a great piece up called “Where Will Malia Ann and Sasha Obama go to School?” Says the author,
Odds are that the Obamas will send their daughters to a private school in DC. Like most parents, they will likely want to ensure that their children get the best schooling they can. Few parents would be willing to risk sacrificing their children’s futures to make a point about the value of public schooling. We live in an era in which schooling is seen primarily as a vehicle either to move up the social ladder or to maintain the social standing that a family has achieved. ..David Labaree argued in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, two once-prominent goals of American schooling—producing citizens prepared for life in a democracy and efficiently allocating individuals to work roles, both of which view schooling as a public good—have been overtaken by the objective of schooling as a means for vaulting over others, which construes schooling as a private good. This privatization of the purpose of schooling, Labaree argues, has resulted in a commodification of schooling, and a decoupling of genuine learning from the credentials that so many individuals chase after.
Go to the Eduwonkette link for a demographic study that shows unequivocally that in Washington, D.C. rich kids go to private schools and poor kids go to public schools.
It’s interesting to look at this premise – that American schools, once intended to produce good citizens who can get good jobs to support the public good, are now essentially springboards for individual achievement – from a New Jersey perspective. Forget about private schools for the moment. If we just look at our 600 school districts, which differ enormously in facilities, curricula, and opportunities based on the wealth of the particular town (think Willingboro/Moorestown or Princeton/Trenton), families who have the financial means can easily move to a different district that can support this new paradigm of the purpose of education. So in Jersey, districts with the highest DFG’s can serve the purpose of private schools and districts with lower DFG’s can serve the purpose of public schools. Families all over the nation will “move to a better school district,” but here at home it is absurdly easy, often just a distance of a few miles.
This reality, of course, is anathema to the equalization that public schools are assumed to provide. So we have the DOE, the Legislature, and various legal teams trying to overturn the way we do education here by siphoning off large amounts of property taxes to Districts-Formerly-Known-as-Abbotts, creating state-sanctioned curricula so that all schools offer the same courses, setting a standard amount of money-per-kid that districts should spend, and appointing Executive County Superintendents who have the authority to slash budgets of districts that attempt to spend more than deemed “thorough and efficient.”
All these new regulations are a noble attempt to equalize our districts so that kids in Trenton or Willingboro get the same opportunities as kids in Moorestown or Princeton. But if Eduwonkette is correct, then we’ve missed the boat, or we’re trying to board an anachronistic ship. Public education no longer is the Great Equalizer because, for many families in Jersey and elsewhere, education is the Great Individualizer.
Hence the philosophical inconsistencies we see at the State level. The High School Redesign Steering Committee, for example, purports to turn all public high schools in New Jersey into college-prep incubators. All students, the Steering Committee mandates, will pass the courses necessary to go to college. Anything less than a college education is tantamount to failure. It’s the new model of education as a private good.
Simultaneously we have a statewide drive, announced by Corzine as the New Jersey High School Graduation Campaign: Keeping Kids in School, intended to lower our 20% dropout rate, one of the highest in the nation. That’s the old model of education as intending to prepare children for life as a servant to the common good.
Ideally we can strive to create an educational system that incorporates both models: education that prepares our children for independent life in a democratic society, and education that prepares our children to move up the social and economic ladder. But if N.J’.s schools remain as segregated as they are currently – low-income districts settling for the former and high-income districts striving for the latter — it’s unlikely that we will succeed in chipping away at the segregation inherent in New Jersey’s school system.