Are Public Schools Focal Points of Failure In a Successful Society?


By Mark Naison


Many critics of our public schools imply that public education is an ugly center of failure in a largely successful society. However, singling out public schools for failure relative to other spheres of America economic and social life, such as our banking system, housing market, and medical system does not hold up on close scrutiny.

Before Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind left teachers and students stressed and demoralized, our public schools may have functioned better and more equitably than those three.

If you say that our public schools didn’t function all that well in our poor communities, which is true- ask yourself if they functioned any worse than our banking system, medical care system and housing market in those communities.

Just look at banking. In the 1970’s and 1980’s.the banking system TOTALLY ABANDONED poor and working class communities where check cashing places charging exorbitant rates now serve as substitutes for banks!

Perhaps that is the model for education Corporate Reformers have in mind. Or our housing market where tens of millions of families are doubled and tripled up or renting out rooms,while there are more than 13, million abandoned apartments and homes. And for medical care, have you compared life expectancy and infant mortality rates by race and class?.

We, in education, can learn a lot– about failure and inequality– by looking at banking, housing and medical care in the US.

At the turn of the Century, Civil Rights leaders were desperate to find some point of access to addressing racial and economic equality. Looking at a grim political landscape due to the Democratic Party’s movement to the Right, they decided that education reform was the only strategy that had a chance of securing bi-partisan support because it required no sacrifice on the part of business elites who had achieved an ascendant position in both major parties by the late 90’s.

The result, beginning with No Child Left Behind, was a national crusade of unprecedented proportions, fully bi-partisan, which still continues. Unfortunately, it has not only failed to achieve the desired results in education, but has seen every other indicator of inequality- from child poverty, to the racial wealth gap, to wage compression, to the concentration of wealth at the top- worsen, not only during the Presidency of George W Bush, but during the ascendency of Barack Obama.

But liberals and Civil Rights leaders stubbornly cling to school reform and become increasingly desperate to make it work, an understandable if self-destructive act of political stubbornness at a time when no other egalitarian strategy is likely to gain bi partisan support. What they would have to accept is that continuing current School Reform strategies might actually be worse than doing nothing

But there is a further irony which indicates the trap that liberals and Civil Rights leaders have dug for themselves. The only egalitarian strategy that has a chance of working would be the unionization of the nation’s low wage workforce, but that requires strengthening the very trade unions that education reformers decided to undermine and attack!

It is time for a cold hard look by liberals at the failures of School Reform and for them to end their war on America’s unions. Unless they want our current march to Plutocracy to succeed so well that all other options are foreclosed.

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