Thirty-nine years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol reflected on an enterprise that began when a dozen parents of the children he taught in Boston convened in his kitchen to plan their own school outside the traditional public education system. “We were very much aware of doing something different and, as we believed, unprecedented in this city and this nation,” Kozol wrote in Free Schools. As he joins perhaps thousands of others for the Save Our Schools rally Saturday in Washington, D.C., Kozol is taking part in a protest that appears so philosophically distant from these older observations that they appear to be written by a different person.
Public education remains as over-regulated as when Free Schools was published in 1972, so we sympathize with Kozol and the other marchers who say more government regulation is not the answer. But we don’t think the solution ends with the plea, “Send us more money and leave us alone.” Educators spending public funds should be publicly accountable, but instead of more government regulation, public education needs more teacher and parent empowerment.
That kind of empowerment once inspired Kozol’s ambitions as an educator, but unfortunately he and the others who will gather on Saturday oppose parental choice. They prefer a command and control structure that centralizes power in the hands of school boards because they can’t conceive of a public education system that’s not a government-owned monopoly. But prior to the 1840s public education was a decentralized system consisting of what today we’d call publicly funded vouchers and charter schools. The systemic disempowerment of teachers and parents did not begin in earnest until the mid-nineteenth century and wasn’t completed until the mid-twentieth century.
People — teachers, students and parents — are public education’s greatest resource. We need an education system that utilizes their assets and maximizes their effectiveness. This can best occur in a well regulated system that empowers educators, both individually and collectively, to create more diverse learning options, and empowers parents to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs.
Saturday’s event will be steeped in irony. A group of anti-corporate “progressives” will rally to conserve a 150-year old command and control corporate structure that disempowers them and their students. Unfortunately these well intentioned education activists aren’t educated enough about the history of public education to know this is what they’re doing.