Notes from the Field
Submitted by Frank Murphy
In the olden times of the Twentieth Century, education tales made for boring stories. Those were the days when children still played in sandboxes and had recess every day. Back then what went on in schools was mainly of interest to the parents, teachers and children who were part of a school’s community. Occasionally, a newspaper article or TV news clip would report to the broader society about some particularly cute event on the schoolhouse stage or at a schoolyard fair. But other than these special human interest stories, schools received little media attention.
Of course there has always been a national interest in the overall success of our schools in preparing its students for their roles as future citizens in a democratic society. Local school districts have traditionally assumed the responsibility for providing those educational experiences that would ensure that success.What has never before been part of that equation is the federal government’s role in dictating how individual schools are to do this.
So when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and our leaders had questions concerning how well our children were being prepared to become the future scientists of America, it was left to individual school districts throughout the states to determine how to address this concern. But for the most part during these years, schools continued to be the place where parents and teachers worked together to help their children prepare for their futures as American citizens.
Schooling in those days was perceived as being a basic public service. Americans willingly and equally shared the responsibility for helping our young to master the skills that were necessary for leading productive and fulfilling adult lives. They recognized that it was their civic duty to support the cost of educating all children to become full participants in our democratic society. All of this was viewed as necessary to the success of this essential public enterprise.
In the last few decades, there has been a steady erosion of individual commitment to this ethic of shared responsibility for public education. This drop in support has coincided with an increase in corporate involvement in the management of schools.
Over this period of time, educational news stories started to take on a different slant. The dusty narratives that constituted the “feel good,” reporting of bygone decades were brushed clean. As politicians and corporate leaders increasingly blamed our schools for putting our nation at risk,educational issues started to dominate the headlines of the 24/7 news cycle. The media provided a regular platform for corporate school reformers to broadcast their message, a message that that essentially linked our country’s slipping economic standing in the world with American education’s perceived failure. The measuring stick for our public schools’ inability to educate our children well became the standardized test score.
In recent years, pioneering young entrepreneurs have launched a number of charter schools that are marketed as solutions to fixing failing public schools. In doing so they have tapped into the $500 billion spent annually on public education in our country. Gradually these efforts are moving significant sums of public funding away from public schools that provide direct services to children, and instead are generating revenue for private enterprise.
These educational business ventures have been primarily both supported and funded by a handful of billionaire philanthropists. These sponsors promote a vision of an efficient national corporate educational system. They claim that by making these investments they will break what they refer to as the “public monopoly on education”. They have been successful at the federal level and in many states in promoting their point of view.
There are many among us who still believe that that educating children must remain an essential public enterprise rather than a business opportunity. This belief is not a quaint relic of a bygone time. It is a reflection of a basic principle of our democracy, that our government institutions exist to serve the needs of all of our people. They are not intended to enrich a few at the sake of the many.
It is long past time that we make this point clear to those corporate school reformers and elected officials who are hard at work dismantling our current system of public education.