Given that parents everywhere during the pandemic have been forced to think—and re-think—the role and place of public education, this might well be the very moment to “re-imagine” the whole matter of the organization and delivery of such education, so as to elevate the status of parents among schooling decision-makers.
As our public schools gradually begin to reopen, or at least contemplate taking such a bold (?) step, the strange standstill brought about by the pandemic may be coming to an end. Strange standstill? Many on the right want schools fully open, despite their concerns about classroom content. On the other hand, many on the left have opposed reopening, thereby foregoing opportunities for the face-to-face indoctrination opposed by the right.
Over the past year parents have had to scramble and juggle, while monitoring or at least trying to monitor all sorts of new and unfamiliar educational avenues. Some have done their best to go with the online flow. Some have turned to private school alternatives. And some have decided to homeschool on their own.
No matter the option adopted, many parents have had to focus on their children’s education in more concentrated and no doubt more compelling ways. To one degree or another, this strange standstill has been a crisis of sorts for all concerned—which may not necessarily prove to be a bad thing.
Not all that long ago, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, coined a phrase that could well apply here: Never let a good crisis go to waste.
Given that parents everywhere have been forced to re-think the role and place of public education, this might well be the very moment to “re-imagine” (to borrow from the vocabulary of the left on policing) the whole matter of the organization and delivery of such education.
As luck would have it, in my home state of Minnesota this is also a time when the state department of education has been charged with revising the standards and benchmarks for social studies. Some of those proposed revisions rely on so-called critical race theory, which in turn relies on the charge of historic and ongoing systemic racism. In any case, when you add the left-right controversies over those benchmarks to the deep and serious divisions among us, a perfect storm of sorts awaits resolution here and perhaps elsewhere.
There was a time when it was axiomatic that American public schools were agents for Americanization, American civics, and, yes, American patriotism. And today? Not so much at best, and not at all at worst.
The assumption then was that public education should have a political dimension. And the assumption today is the same. But there is a very large difference over the not-so-small matter of content. There are also differences over who decides such matters. My contention is that such decisions should ultimately be in the hands of legislators in the macro sense and in the of hands parents in the micro sense. More on that below.
First, a quick diversion to the infamous Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. The inimitable H. L. Mencken was a confirmed Darwinian who agreed with John Scopes. But he also defended the authority of the Tennessee legislature to tell its hired hands what to teach—or not to teach (evolution or the very doctrine with which Mencken was in full agreement).
Of course, neither parents nor legislators know precisely what’s being taught in any classroom. And no one should advocate that teachers join police by wearing body cams equipped with voice recorders for any number of reasons, not the least of which concerns the privacy rights of students.
But no one should doubt that the long march of the left through many American institutions has included American schools, and, yes, even K-12 public schools. It’s all a phase of the ongoing culture war, a war that has largely been lost to the left on many fronts, including public education.
Given that march and its success, what is to be done? It’s one thing to say that legislators and parents should have a great deal more to say about what’s being taught than is currently the case. But it’s quite another thing to bring this about.
It could also be quite likely that what might eventually be brought about by legislatures and parents will be much more multicultural in ways very different from the 19th-century origins of public education and in ways that the left would find objectionable today. How so? Keep reading.
When public education began in earnest in the mid-19th century, public schools were home to a generic Protestantism. Catholics soon responded by establishing their own parish schools. Today, people of faith have abandoned public schools because of the absence of all traditional religion and the accompanying imposition of secularism as a religion all its own.
So once again the question isn’t the presence or absence of what amounts to a political message, but its content and who decides what that content should be. Among potential decision-makers the possibilities are state legislators, state bureaucrats, local school boards, individual teachers, and parents—or some combination thereof. At the moment the decision-maker with the least input or clout is often the parent.
For example, should the central message of history classes be based on the New York Times‘ “1619 Project,” with its contentions that America has always been a racist nation and that something called systemic racism remains at the heart of the American story? Or should the pivotal year be 1776 or 1787 and the message of systemic distrust of centralized power?
In addition, something called “Action Civics” is now afoot in our public schools. Already adopted in some states, this project extends academic credit to students who engage in lobbying and protesting efforts. This will give a whole new meaning to the term “homework.”
Will such allegedly academic work be political in nature? To be sure. Will it likely have a left-wing or a right-wing slant? Take a guess.
Such projects and activities represent a decided shift away from anything remotely resembling public education as it was once understood. Much reduced is the notion that public education should buttress and advance the country. Significantly elevated is the idea that public education should dovetail with the point of view of the left, as well as the interests of the Democratic party.
What to do? Or better yet, how to re-imagine. Here’s where we return to matters macro and micro. As matters now stand, public education is funded in significant part on the basis of formulas tied to student enrollment. Presumably, that final per-student figure has something to do with the cost of a student’s education. Well, after the legislature determines that cost, why not permit parents to direct the funds to the school of their choice? Call it a voucher system or call it what you will, the idea would be to elevate the status of parents among schooling decision-makers.
Some confusion and uncertainty would no doubt initially occur. But accountability and responsibility would soon result.
In addition, parents without significant means would be empowered to make choices otherwise unavailable to them. Why should anyone, especially Democrats, oppose that?
In all likelihood, such a reform would result in more multiculturalism in our public schools, because it would mean some families choosing to direct their piece of the educational pie to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Moslem academies. But would this be any different than the principle behind the GI Bill, which permits veterans to direct their education benefit as they see fit?
The Constitution properly mandates that there shall be no established religion. It does not mandate Jefferson’s invented “wall” of separation. The pandemic-ignited school shutdown and the impending end of our strange standstill could be just the moment to re-imagine the entire enterprise of public education.
The original model would remain in place, meaning public funding for public education, broadly defined. But since the original purpose has long been abandoned, let’s give parents greater control over the process and result.
To be sure, this involves risks. But the crisis of our strange standstill offers opportunities as well. If it’s impossible to restore the original purpose of public education, let’s gamble on our parents. And if we have to concede that this phase of the culture has been lost, let’s bet that our country and our families will benefit from realizing the possibility that all sorts of educational alternatives might emerge and flourish.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.