Preserving the Public in Public Schools

by Shawn Healy, Resident Scholar, Civics Program 

"…We educate children for a number of reasons, but ultimately to preserve our democratic republic."
Preserving the Public in Public Schools

But not everyone believes that. For some, preserving prosperity is the current rage, with schools placing an increased emphasis on reading and math, skills deemed essential by the business community. Lost in the process is the commitment to developing good citizens, the foundation for a strong democracy.

In their recently published book, Preserving the Public in Public Schools, Phil Boyle and Del Burns argue that public schools in the United States have served as the perennial battleground for the nation’s competing ideals of a good society.

The authors believe that the debate surrounding the purpose of public education consistently focuses on the issues of liberty, community, equality and prosperity. They contend:

  • Liberty manifests itself best in the current debate over school choice—neighborhood schools, charter schools, magnet schools, or publically-funded vouchers to attend parochial schools.
  • Community is emphasized when we "help students learn to function as effective citizens in a democracy", and "design school experiences to nurture in all children the habits of judgment that democratic life requires."
  • Equality remains the "great unfinished task of American democracy", as our schools remain segregated by race, class, and increasingly, student performance.

When the balance shifts toward a prosperity-based model, the civic health of our communities is weakened, and the underlying fabric of our democracy frayed. Boyle and Burns suggest that we re-balance the equation by aligning economic goals for schools with those that are more democratic. We should teach students to balance self-interest and the common good.

Boyle and Burns leave us to ponder this question: "Shouldn’t education not only prepare children for this world but also develop their potential to help make a better one?"


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