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Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Partially Localist Defense of Public Schooling

[Cross-posted to the Front Porch Republic.]

President Obama's speech last week on the various hopes and goals his administration has in mind as they address the issue of public education in America gave rise to a little mockery, and perhaps deservedly so. At a time when the globalist pretensions of the liberal capitalist order are being revealed all around us as often empty promises, talking about increasing the length of the school year by reference to the need to prepare American children for a "21st century economy" in the exact same way South Koreans are preparing their children for it does seem a little farcical, and not just for reasons having to do with the massive differences in our respective histories, geographies, cultures and environments. (Which is not to say that there might not be reasonable arguments in favor of rethinking a public schooling schedule that follows an agrarian model that is, unfortunately, no longer an option for the majority of people in a country where the suburban and urban population greatly outstrips the rural and exurban one, but that's a different topic.) Much in the speech, however, was not at all silly: lifting restrictions on charter schools, encouraging merit pay for teachers, etc. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but these are reforms worth taking seriously.

But taking them seriously means taking public education seriously, and why would anyone do that? Well, for the obvious reason (some of which I've gone over before): we are all, in our various communities, members of numerous publics, and it has long been recognized by thinkers of any number of different stripes--religious, philosophical, poetic, moral--that achieving a certain level of general education (a basic familiarity with literature, history, science, and citizenship) makes for a better, more hopeful, more trusting, more livable polity. In saying this I am not buying into the mentality--indeed, I would discourage anyone from buying into the mentality--that the only education which matters is one which successfully directs the student towards a university education and professional specialization. Not only is the promise which supports that mentality--a promise of an ever higher standard of living--economically false, but it is reductive too: it reduces human beings to a meritocratic measurement that ignores the larger meanings (meanings about the arts and sciences of living) and which provide the foundation for the very idea of the education. Still, public education need not--and for well over a century in the United States, did not--justify itself in that way; the fact that so many teachers and administrators and politicians today do justify their work by way of such a mentality is not a good reason, I think, to dismiss the original concept.

There are a great many ways to take apart and consider this broad claim--questions about religion and schools, about parental involvement and funding, about federal mandates and local diversity. (Some of which I talk about more here.) But let's consider here one specific criticism: school size. Public schools, we are warned, are always looking to expand their size, to leave behind their local connection to a neighborhood or town, and drawn in more students, engage a wider environment, and attract more money, which the government will happily supply (with its regulations following). Much of this is true; therefore, presumably, anyone who celebrates the kind of particular (limited, but all the more deep because of their circumscribed nature) virtues that "small schools" can offer ought to be wary of the promise of public schooling. That way lies consolidation and small-town extinction. Well, perhaps.

Some years ago, back when Mick Huckabee was a governor rather than a former presidential candidate and a current media personality, there was an argument over school consolidation in Arkansas, as there has been in many rural and semi-rural states over the past half-century. I was living in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the time, and there was a member of our church, a fine rural gentleman, who taught high school (metal shop mostly; I can remember the delightful meat smoker he and his students constructed out of an old pickup truck) in the tiny farming town of Swifton, about an hour west of us. Swifton's high school had perhaps 150 students; the student-teacher ratio was 10-to-1. It was your classic "small school," and my friend rightly defended its accomplishments and its place in their little town. And he was angry, when I knew him, because Governor Huckabee--whom he'd voted for; he was a Republican, of course--was talking about school consolidation. Other people were angry too. Their anger was genuine and deserved...but it wasn't the whole story either. (If you're thinking I've written about this before, you're right.)

To give my friend's side in the argument its due, I point to Alan Ehrenhalt, the author of a marvelous and much-cited book on life in the neighborhoods of Chicago when local authority still meant something, who wrote about the controversy in an essay titled "The Dangers of School District Consolidation" in the journal The Responsive Community. In it, he correctly noted that those who advocate consolidating smaller school districts into larger ones usually do so meaning to provide "the widest array of courses for the best price" to students who otherwise would attend small, presumably limited rural schools. This observation was supported by one John Brummett, an Arkansas journalist and supporter of Huckabee's consolidation proposal, who captured this perspective when he wrote that defenders of small school districts "think of education as service to the existing constituency. I think of it as a force for change....I think education should aspire to extend horizons further than the neighborhood college....It should introduce students to a remote world." To say the least, those who take seriously the value of community should think twice about reforms that explicitly aim students toward some "remote" end; and those who take seriously the importance of local democracy should be taken aback at Brummett's brusque dismissal of serving the "existing constituency." However, condemning the lack of respect for rural ways of life which often characterizes educational reformers, and praising the communal involvement and participation that small school districts make possible, still doesn't make it clear what a properly conceived appreciation of community should have demanded of Governor Huckabee. There is still the question of which community, which constituency, should take priority.

Huckabee, I would often note to my friend, was originally resistant to calls for consolidation. What changed his mind was a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that the state school finance system was inequitable and did not satisfy the education clause in the Arkansas Constitution, which states that "the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." With this decision (and the threat of a court takeover of Arkansas’s schools) hanging over the state, Huckabee felt that district consolidation had to be part of any reform proposal. His claim was that fewer school districts with a consequently larger pool of teachers to share would be able to provide a greater variety of classes to more students, thus presumably somewhat equalizing the great disparity in educational resources around the state at little extra cost. Huckabee originally proposed that districts with under 1,500 students total be consolidated–-which would have affected nearly three-quarters of Arkansas’s 310 school districts, except that he also proposed exceptions for especially isolated or highly performing school districts, whatever their size, thus undermining some complaints about long bus rides and "punishing" excellent schools. In time, his proposed was whittled down to only affecting schools with fewer than 350 students. But this was far from a sufficient guarantee to most advocates of small community schools; protests by parents, students, and educators quickly spread across the state, protests which my friend frequently participated in.

What my friend often ignored, however, and which Ehrenhalt's essay didn't mention, was that the court case that began this whole process was vigorously pursued and supported from the outset by a coalition of parents and educators from some of Arkansas’s very smallest schools and some of the most committed rural-schooling organizations in America. It made perfect sense that they do so: the original plaintiff in the case which ended up forcing Governor Huckabee's hand, Lake View School District, served just under 200 students total, had woeful facilities and little technology, with some teachers earning as little as $15,000 a year. Arkansas Chancery Court Judge Collins Kilgore wrote that "for some districts to supply the barest necessities and others to have programs generously endowed does not meet the requirements of the constitution." This judgment against the unfair distribution of education funding and resources in Arkansas was cheered by advocates of small schools: the Rural School and Community Trust, which later condemned Huckabee's consolidation proposal, celebrated the original lawsuit as an instance of a "little district that could." In language not too different from Brummett's focus on technical opportunity and choice, they argued in their brief that rectifying the $1800-per-student difference in state funding that existed between those districts in the top percentile and those near the bottom in Arkansas "would be enough to raise teacher salaries, hire more teachers...offer remedial reading courses...[and] provide computers for every classroom."

One could, perhaps, ask the supporters of Lake View if they realistically imagined that the governor and state legislature could have come up with any solution that would've achieved increased state funding for these poor rural districts, given the American people’s deeply ingrained resistance to either raising taxes or widely redistributing property tax funds, that wouldn't have also involved increased centralization of those same districts.. But one can’t fault their intentions. Those who forced this issue did so because they took seriously the stated educational standards of the state of Arkansas, a community in its own right, with commitments and obligations that have long been skewed in their application. Ehrenhalt correctly noted that the bulk of protests against Huckabee's proposal emerged from the sparsely populated towns of northern Arkansas; what he didn't note was that the majority of such school districts are entirely or mostly white, while tiny school districts like Lake View, which have suffered the worst in terms of both funding and school performance, were predominantly African-American districts in Arkansas's southern and eastern Delta region. A concerned citizen, I thought then, and still think today, thus ask herself: if there is (unfortunately) neither the will nor a plausible strategy for raising and equalizing educational funds across the state, how much force should we grant to the demands of those who defend the integrity of their local communities when such (certainly justifiable and even valuable) defensive actions may unintentionally help to perpetuate an injustice (the continuing decline of certain districts which will likely never be able to be able to provide an education comparable to that available in other school districts) within a larger community: namely, the sovereign state of Arkansas, which had an integrity and a set of constitutional obligations all its own to protect?

I was never particularly successful of making this tension clear to my friend, and perhaps I never should have expected to have been able to. In the end, it sounded to him like I was defending what Ehrenhalt concluded most advocates of consolidation end up defending: the notion that streamling education by making it more consolidated, more efficient, more broad, sells away local community in the name of a false opportunity "to enter a brave new world of education." I hope that's not the case, but when you have overlapping communities pulling on your senses of belonging and duty and obligation, splitting the difference may sometimes be the only route left to you. Thankfully, being on the losing side of this battle (and Swifton was partially consolidated; it kept its middle school, while the high school, including all faculty and students in town, were combined with that of Tuckerman High School, found in another equally small town about ten miles away), did not turn him against public schooling--he was, in fact, a bit of a crank about any real alternatives to education provided by anyone besides the whole community in a public way, distrusting the ability of parents and co-ops to educate students in ways that weren't likely to be "ignorant and racist" (his words, not mine). Coming from a family where home schooling is a common enough choice to make my own children's attendance of public schools--and my wife's and my defenses of them--a bit of exotica at family reunions, I kept my thoughts to myself. But I appreciated that, in the end, he and I could at least agree on one thing: that there is something to be said for treating the educational opportunities which communities and the state make possible as a common good, one that must be tended to at least as much by the whole, as by all its parts.


Roberto said...

Very nicely put. Thank you. My biggest problem with many localist/agrarian arguments is that, having rightly rejected appeals to an abstract and remote "whole," they are blind or at least seemingly indifferent to the inequities and often-indefensible limitations of the local.

It reminds me of the old Cold War maxim about some tinhorn dictator being "our S.O.B." The argument often becomes "it may be 'racist and ignorant' but it's our racism and ignorance."

Russell Arben Fox said...

My biggest problem with many localist/agrarian arguments is that, having rightly rejected appeals to an abstract and remote "whole," they are blind or at least seemingly indifferent to the inequities and often-indefensible limitations of the local.

Nicely said, Roberto. Of course, that doesn't make it any more obvious exactly where and in regards to what one should draw the ling separating those abstract wholes from the local. In matters of public education, I guess I'm content with, even happy with, a degree of federalization, because I'm not sure there's any other way the scandal of segregation could have been addressed otherwise. But then I start to back away--and want to defend an element of local curricula and control, after all. So it's a difficult struggle.

Roberto said...

The "scandal of segregation" is the single-biggest reason why I am wary of localist appeals. It's not that I think that Front Porch Republic types are bigots -- far from it. It's that presented with an obvious evil and an argument that is an equally-obvious smokescreen, there's an awkward silence.