MAXWELL:  An education in democracy

2/4/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Public education, both as a practice and as a concept, is under siege nationally. A recent Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial, for example, urged the 104th Congress to carry out its earlier threat to dismantle the federal Department of Education. The department is so bad, the newspaper commented, that lawmakers should “yank” it up “by the roots” and “salt the Earth beneath” it.

And during his State of the Union address, President Clinton earned praise for encouraging teachers and private groups to form their own schools.

Privatization, along with giving tax dollars to private companies to operate public schools, is gaining broad currency, and terms such as “charter schools” and “vouchers” are showing up more frequently in legislation. According to the New York Times, 246 charter schools opened nationwide during the last five years. These public facilities receive public funds but operate independent of district offices.

With a daughter and a grandson in Florida public schools _ and being a product of this system and a former teacher _ I am a stakeholder and am keenly aware of the failings of public schools. I am aware that the status quo will not do, that too many of our young people are not learning to read, write and compute. And, like other people who care about education, I worry about the violence, drugs and the general disregard for authority on too many campuses.

Something has to be done, and I agree with English educator William Dell who said that “what the youth now is, the whole Commonwealth will shortly be.”

As we turn to charters, vouchers and privately operated institutions to correct our problems, we should be aware that we essentially are taking a shot in the dark. We have no evidence that these new trends, some of them fads, will improve learning. In a larger sense, though, we need also to ask whether we might lose something of great social value. By embracing these new programs, are we relinquishing the very force that gives the United States much of its unique character among nations? I refer to the democratizing efficacy of public schooling.

In my own case, I fondly remember my public school days in the separate-but-equal South. And even though our teachers, all black, knew that Jim Crow was no respecter of our constitutional rights, they nonetheless groomed us to become citizens who wanted to serve our nation, who wanted to belong to a nation we believed would change for the better.

Our schoolhouse was more than a physical place. It was our public forum, our meeting place, an extension of our homes and churches. Most of our community events were planned around the school. Our principal, a neighbor, was seen as a wise leader and outstanding citizen. Our parents and grandparents thought nothing of calling him at home for advice on non-school topics.

Our teachers were more than classroom fixtures. To us, they, like our principal who had contact with white society, were our link to the republic, proof that if we were good citizens, we, too, could be successful and share in the American Dream _ even though racism often made our lives uncertain and scorned us.

Our school, moreover, was the one place in our communities that whites were willing to support with their personal wealth and with tax dollars. Our all-black schools gave many whites their only opportunity to be good citizens and real Americans, to do something decent for those they subjugated.

Blacks are not the only group to have experienced the democratizing power of public education. Generations of immigrants from all corners of the globe have become American because of our public schools. Here, immigrants learn the nation’s values and are immersed in the esprit de corps that is uniquely ours.

I am not opposed to well-operated charter schools and perhaps limited experiments with vouchers. But I worry that advocates have given too little, if any, thought to what will be lost if the nation’s network of public schools are replaced with thousands of independent satellites charting their own courses.

The effects will not be seen immediately. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. But I am convinced that schoolhouse Balkanization, in the name of charters and vouchers, will harm the nation more than ethnic Balkanization has done. If we do not plan well, such Balkanization will become a way of life, and our public school system _ the “safety net” for the nation’s millions of poor and minority students who already feel like non-citizens _ will be left in shambles.

Although many officials claim that they want charters and voucher programs to help disadvantaged students, such efforts, if fueled by racism and elitism, will weaken public schools and cause poor and minority youngsters to become even more alienated from the mainstream, to feel even less American.

Basic education must remain a national priority, and we must act boldly to implement effective remedies. I believe that charter schools, vouchers and privatization should be tried. But in our rush to change, we should remain aware of public education’s democratizing power, its ability to make the “melting pot” more hospitable.

In our rush to establish the School on the Hill, where self-selected students get the best teachers and the best equipment and supplies, we must try to keep families with less-fortunate circumstances connected to the force that makes all of us American.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial wrtiter and columnist for the Times.