Is Public Education In the US Broken Beyond Repair? Well, Is It?

Jose Vilson Jose

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of watching Seattle teacher, unionist / activist, and colleague Jesse Hagopian verbally spar with former US assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham, with noted education professor and friend to this program Pedro Noguera interjecting as the “research voice” in the middle. For a snippet, check below (for a wrap-up, read here):

First, let’s give props to Al Jazeera for actually asking an actual teacher to debate on policy matters. The dynamic went as well as one could have hoped for. Cunningham touted the successes of education reform of the last decade (if you say so …) and Hagopian outed Cunningham’s Education Post as a 1%-er vehicle for education reform (mouth was agape the whole time). There were solid moments in there too, like when Jesse discussed the New York Performance Standards Consortium and the merits of students demonstrating knowledge via performance and not through a standardized test.

But I also came away thinking this discussion merited more than a focus on standardized testing. I’ve grown increasingly skeptical that the talking points out there are actually working because, the more we use them, the more boring they get.

So, is public education beyond repair? Nope. Is the debate on public education beyond repair? I hope not, but maybe.

Ultimately, the debate often lands on what you believe the purpose of education is, and for whom. I see public education as an entity that was only built for a small set of people to get in, and our country resisted adjustment at almost every turn. Yet, it’s generally the only space we have right now that must enroll the children that walk through its doors. Redlining and property taxes is law, and because that’s how our public schools are funded in our states, we will continue to have inequity. Even more pernicious is the idea that a healthy mix of market-based schools with some parts public funding and some parts private funded will actually work, because, as we’ve seen with so many initiatives throughout the world, private funding is not sustainable. If anything, venture philanthropy is such that folks who should pay more taxes aren’t, but when they give more, they expect something in return.

That’s not philanthropy. That’s not public. That argument doesn’t fly with me, either.

But perhaps most pertinent to this conversation is that few folks talk about flipping the narrative so good policy can reflect good practice, and not compliant practice reflecting compliant pedagogy. In the spirit of acclaimed education philosopher Paolo Freire, I submit that we ought to differentiate between schools that make our students the object of their work and the subjects of their work. When we talk about what needs fixing, the debate (and the barrage of commercials) is often centered on poor children of color, but they’re usually mascots and poster children rather than agents in their own understandings of the world. Our students deserve a great education, but at this point, we have so many disparate forms of education that we’re content when anyone champions a militaristic structure because order looks better than nothing at all.

I don’t believe in the public education we have now because it’s not that public.

We need a public school system with equity across the board, including on matters of accountability. Yet, blame and consequences rarely touch those with the most power to make decisions, and students, parents, and teachers rarely make it into the tables where people make state and federal decisions. Much like our other social safety nets, the political will to create equitable (much less equal) funding for all schools is zilch. The richest country in the world tells millions of students a year that the money just ain’t there. How?

The more that policymakers, politicians, and pundits make decisions that constrict my teacher flow, the more I must speak out. If that includes overtesting, defunding, overemphasis on English and math (and much less on every other subject), then that’s an inequity we can’t stand for.

So many folks have accepted the talking points that even the powers that be can freely flaunt them while sending their kids to schools that look a lot like what the rest of us have asked for.


photo c/o