Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Great Equalizer

Once upon a time, there lived a self-educated fellow named Horace Mann. He worked his way through Brown University and later served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then the Senate. He then gave up his legislative career to become the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.

Before departing to dedicate his life to abolitionism, Mann spent his 11 years on the board formulating a philosophy of public education that became the foundation for American education from 1838 on. He declared that American public education should be universal, provided to students of all religions, classes, and ethnicities. He determined that such education should eschew specific religious influence while still being based on moral principles. He decided that education should be paid for by the public and delivered by professionally-trained teachers.

What’s remarkable about Mann is his eternal optimism—his lovely belief that education could make someone virtuous, appreciative of God and nature, a pillar of democracy, and the equal of every other educated person. He successfully overcame the derision of religious and governmental leaders who disliked this usurpation of their power, and he essentially created the system we have today.

I have to think that poor Horace is spinning in his grave as he contemplates the dissolution of public education as envisioned by certain U.S. governors, including our own. The public school system a “monopoly”? Competition via privatization?

Even Mann never envisioned a land in which we promised to educate ALL children. Prior to 1975, we really didn’t do that—states could opt out of educating students with certain disabilities, whether emotional or cognitive. Then came the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and today U.S. schools must educate ANY student with special needs. Although this has become a worldwide human rights issue, we remain one of the very few nations, developed or not, that offers inclusive education. Even in Europe, most students with special needs are educated in a segregated setting.

In contrast to public schools' education for all, private schools can pick and choose their students. Indeed, a student who enrolls in a private school and can’t handle the work may be “counseled out.” As for charter schools, if they are publicly funded, they are required to take children with special needs, but odds are that unless the charter is specially designed to provide services for those children, fewer children with special needs will enroll in charters than enroll in “regular” schools. Of course, if you are a rabid supporter of charter schools, you can come up with a different reason: because “some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically [in the charter] and thus are never designated as disabled.” It’s worth considering studies that compare charters to public schools academically and find them wanting despite their lower percentages of students with special needs.

When our governor refers to public education as “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” I guess maybe he’s referring to prisons, which are increasingly privatized (and how’s that working out for us?) and perhaps hospitals or the post office. But we’ve had private schools forever; if you want to avoid Mann’s secular, inclusive model, you can do so, even in a county as small as ours. We even subsidize those private schools with public funds; we pay for their transportation, textbooks, computers, health services, and library materials. So I’m not entirely sure what the governor’s talking about. He claims to be motivated by public school teachers’ unwillingness to be evaluated, yet he supports charters that allow up to 30 percent of teachers to teach without certification.

You want to bust a public monopoly? I can think of a few public utilities and telecommunication companies that really ought to have some competition. How about our ridiculous public authorities? Let’s break up some of those, or at least make them accountable to the people of New York. But keep your hands off Horace Mann’s invention: the free, public education that “is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

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