Keep Public School Public

By Phil Boyle and Del Burns

U.S. public schools serve a variety of purposes. They conserve contemporary values, attitudes, and social mores. They provide economic opportunity and social mobility to children of less advantaged families and thereby promote a dynamic society. They ensure a supply of educated workers. They help take care of and raise children whose parents carry out economic lives away from home. And they make a growing body of knowledge -- which is increasingly difficult to collect, organize, and learn individually -- accessible to all children.

Consider the public aspect of our schools. What is public about public education other than its funding? Why should we ask citizens rather than education professionals to govern public schools? For what purpose, and toward what ends, do we invest in educating the next generation of Americans? We educate children for a number of reasons, but ultimately to preserve our democratic republic.

Public education and our democratic republic have evolved over time together. In spite of the efforts of some reformers, they cannot be separated. In the Founding Fathers’ view of a classical republic, government is inextricably linked with society. There can be no absolute separation of state or government from society.

Similarly, there can be no absolute separation of public from schools, no absolute separation of the educational from the political. This lack of separation can be troubling, particularly to dedicated public school leaders and professionals who very much want public schools to be about children rather than politics. However, we say that such a separation is neither possible nor desirable.

Public schools carry out a public role in socializing children into society, preparing the next generation to take their place as Americans in what is today the oldest republic in the world. All other socialization is a private responsibility -- carried out by and through parents, families, and church and community institutions. Public schools are the way we transmit our collective knowledge and shared values to each succeeding generation. If we are serious about tasking public schools with such a purpose, then we must be willing to engage in an equally serious conversation about the public purposes of public schools.

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