Saturday, July 7, 2012

Publicly funded vs. public

In a recent primary battle in my neighborhood, a neophyte politician attempted, unsuccessfully, to upset a long-standing incumbent by citing his opposition to school choice and vouchers. The incumbent’s establishment supporters argued that this would only further impoverish the already bankrupt Philadelphia public schools. The issue of vouchers is complicated, but the notion of a straightforward dichotomy between public and private schools, at least in big cities like Philadelphia, is totally out of date.

1. “Public” schools are harder for parents to visit (let alone choose among) than private schools.

2. “Public” school parents have no input in what matters most: who’s hired; what curricula are used.

3. "Public" school principals often stonewall when parents volunteer to run after-school activities at the school, particularly if those activities are academic in nature and/or pitched at higher-achieving children (e.g., math team, computer science club).

4. Many of the nation’s biggest “public” school systems have appointed rather than elected boards and superintendents who answer to cronies and corporate partners (textbook and software companies and other suppliers) rather than to citizens.

5. While some religious schools fail to teach certain key topics in science (evolution of species; pre-4004 BC geological and cosmological history), many public schools (via Reform Math) fail to teach even more key topics in math (arithmetic fluency; fluency in multi-step manipulations of algebraic expressions; rigorous multistep proofs)--math being the subject that underpins all of college-level science.

One indication that our schools aren’t truly public is extreme disconnect between supply and demand--something that transcends financial constraints. In particular, there’s the disconnect between the curricula and pedagogy used by our public schools and the curricula and pedagogy desired by public school parents. I’m thinking not just of Reform Math vs. traditional or Singapore Math, phonics versus Whole Language, or mixed-ability groupings vs. ability-based groupings; I’m thinking also of the extremely long waitlists for the tiny numbers of Montessori, bilingual, and KIPP schools our biggest school districts have to offer.

However complicated the vouchers debate, calling our publicly-funded schools “public” is becoming more and more of a red herring.

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