Discussions of school choice and vouchers nearly always assume that public schools are permanent parts of the American educational scene. Increasingly I wonder why. Why should there be any public schools?
I don't ask merely because the public schools are performing badly, although (as usual) they are. Pamela R. Winnick discusses science teaching in a recent issue of Weekly Standard. One survey found that a whopping 12% of graduating U.S. seniors were "proficient" in science. Global rankings place our seniors 19th among 21 surveyed countries.
Agreed: The national interest requires that all children be educated and that all taxpayers contribute. But it doesn't follow that we need public schools. We need military aircraft; all taxpayers help pay for them. Which doesn't mean that we need public aircraft companies. (Although if American airplanes ranked 19th best out of 21 contenders, the public might be moved to do something about it.) Schools aren't the same as airplane factories, but the analogy is illuminating.
What gives public schools the right to exist? After all, they are no part of the nation's constitutional framework. Neither the Constitution nor Bill of Rights requires public schools. And in one sense they are foreign to American tradition. Europeans are inspired by state institutions. Americans are apt to be inspired by private enterprise, entrepreneurship, choice.
I believe that public schools have a right to exist insofar as they express a shared public view of education. A consensus on education, at least at the level of each state and arguably of the nation, gives schools the right to call themselves public and be supported by the public. Once public schools stop speaking for the whole community, they are no different from private schools. It's not public schools' incompetence that have wrecked them. It's their non-inclusiveness.
American public schools used to speak for the broad middle ground of American life. No longer. The fault is partly but not only theirs. A hundred years ago, a national consensus existed and public schools did their best to express it. Today that consensus has fractured, and public schools have made no effort to rebuild it.
To find out where things stood 100 years ago, check the celebrated 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910). "The great mass of the American people are in entire agreement as to the principles which should control public education." No one would dare say that today.
"Formal instruction in manners and morals is not often found" in American public schools, the Britannica explained, "but the discipline of the school offers the best possible training in the habits of truthfulness, honesty, obedience, regularity, punctuality and conformity to order."
The broad national agreement that made such statements possible no longer exists. Americans today disagree on fundamentals -- on the ethics of sexuality and the family, for example. Recently the Boston Globe described an argument at a Massachusetts kindergarten over a book for young children about "multicultural contemporary family units," including gay and lesbian ones. One 6-year-old's father arrived at school to insist on his right to withdraw his child from class on days when this book was on the program. School administrators "urged" him to leave and, when he didn't, had him arrested. (Michelle Malkin's blog pointed me to the story.) Lately there have been other similar incidents in the news.
Then there are parents like my wife and me. We sent our children to public and not private secondary school exactly so they'd become part of a broad American community. Instead, our boys have been made painfully aware nearly every day of their school lives that they are conservative and their teachers are liberal. Making parents feel like saps is one of the few activities at which today's public schools excel.
Public schools used to invite students to take their places in a shared American culture. They didn't allow a left- or right-wing slant, only a pro-American slant: Their mission, after all, was to produce students who were sufficiently proud of this country to take care of it.
Today's public schools have forfeited their right to exist. Let's get rid of them. Let's do it carefully and humanely, but let's do it. Let's offer every child a choice of private schools instead.
And if this kind of talk makes public schools snap to and get serious, that's OK also. But don't hold your breath.