What it Should Mean for Public Education
What would an equitable system of education look like at the elementary and secondary levels? For starters, we need to understand one thing that I have been aware of since my first student teaching experience in a public school – equal and fair are two different things, and things do not have to be equal in order to be fair. As a way of clarifying this, look at Brown v Board of Education (1954). In this landmark civil rights case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate, but equal, is not equal. This decision illustrates how things that may seem equal may also not be fair.
So my opinion of fairness in education is going to tread a very fine line. For starters, a “fair” system of education requires adequate funding. Now adequate means a very Marxist thing here – from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. This notion removes “equality” from the equation. Some schools and individuals simply require more funding than others based on the demographics of the school and the pre-existing skills and abilities that students in a particular area bring with them when they enter the school. A school with students who are less-well-prepared would require more fiscal resources than a school with better-prepared students. Now this does not mean that either group of students should be forced to do without anything that would make their educational experience rich, meaningful, and rewarding. Adequate funding means just that – giving each school the funding that it needs to provide a positive educational experience for every student.
That said, fairness in education also has a great deal to do with autonomy, or, if you prefer, separateness. Each teacher, school, or district needs to have the discretion to run their classroom(s) or system in a way which they, as the local experts, know will best benefit their students. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators in impoverished rural or urban areas need to have input into decisions that concern their school in the same way that parents in suburban schools often do. National control and standards do a great injustice to the individual student by failing to account for differences in social, ethnic, gender, or other background factors that affect performance on these tests and should be abolished in favor of authentic assessments that measure innovative and critical thinking within a context that has meaning for the student and their community. This move away from standardization can only happen through local autonomy.
What it Could Mean for Higher Education
Higher education is a different animal than public education to its very core. In the U.S., there is no free, compulsory higher education. It is a luxury rather than a mandate. This is the first area in which a movement towards creating a fair society would have to look in terms of higher education. Signs of this are already starting to emerge. Yesterday I received an email from moveon.org asking me to sign a petition to have the federal government forgive all outstanding student loans as an economic stimulus initiative. While unrelated to Occupy Wall Street on the surface, such an initiative is very much inspired by the fact that a significant number of the protestors are disgruntled college students or recent graduates who are saddled with insurmountable college debt and little real hope for employment in a struggling economy (NPR, Oct. 14, 2011).
I am not going to propose that all colleges and universities should be free. It will not happen. In the same way that some people choose to enroll their children in private schools, some, regardless of any societal shift, will enroll in high-cost, private colleges and universities. However, there needs to be a free, government funded college option for anyone interested in pursuing higher education. This free option could be through community colleges, state universities, or some other new system involving online and informal learning. Regardless of what the actual system looks like, the value of higher education is currently out of alignment with the actual costs. Given the immense value of learning and the importance of continuing education for all Americans, easily available free educational alternatives should be a priority of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Originally published on October 18th, 2011 in full here.