The Case for Common Public Education

September 2002

Many advocates for public education wanted the Supreme Court to rule that school vouchers violated separation of church and state because so many tax dollars would flow to religious institutions. However, on June 27 the Supreme Court ruled contrary to that hope in the Cleveland school case.

That ruling has added fuel to school choice movements and frustrated many who champion a common public education as a crucial element in the future of American society. According to the latest statistics the public is evenly divided on the school choice issue, though support seems to be edging upward. Findings from this years Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on public attitudes toward education showed that 52 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that students be allowed to attend private school wherein “the government would pay all or part of the tuition.” That was up from 44 percent in last year’s survey. When that same question was posed after the Supreme Court decision, the number in favor increased to 56 percent. For details of this survey click here.

Historically the private school movement has been driven by people’s perception that their worldviews were not being treated fairly in public schools. This spawned the parochial school movement in the early days of our Republic, and the modern movement toward Protestant schools over the last 40 years. As more secular influences have come to dominate public schools with more liberal social agendas, many families felt public education became hostile to their deeply held beliefs.

In recent years, however, this movement has gained newfound legitimacy and fresh impetus by putting its emphasis on academic excellence. Pointing to public schools with low achievement they are build a compelling case for alternatives to the public education with the use of government funding.

Public education is one of the last local places where we are compelled to work with people who don’t see the world the same way we do. This reason alone makes public schools play a pivotal role in the future of American democracy. If we don’t learn to respect each other at a local level, how will we ever find the courage to do it nationally?

If public education is going to thrive in this new millennium, it will have to make its case to the American people on two fronts: First, public school educators must demonstrate that they can treat divergent worldviews fairly. It confounds me when education groups like the teacher unions advocate for a liberal social agenda alienating many participants in public education. While no one would contest their right as individuals to advance their agenda through the political process, doing so as an education group leaves parents with the impression that their educators will seek to indoctrinate children with a political or social agenda the parents do not share. Today schools must consider how they can convince their community that differing worldviews can be treated compassionately and fairly and follow through with action.

Second, public education has to demonstrate its flexibility and passion to create a sound and successful academic model for all students. Certainly private education may have an advantage since more of those parents have a tendency to be more involved in their children’s education than those in public school, but public schools still must show that it can provide equal academic opportunities as its first mission.

This struggle is far from over. A successful and fair public education is in the best interest of all of us and the vast majority of parents still prefer their children to be educated there. But public schools are going to have to do a better job at connecting with the public and inviting them to help better public education for all students.

Wayne Jacobsen, President
BridgeBuilders

Also, BridgeBuilders will be doing a series of workshops this fall and winter in a variety of California counties. If you’re interested in attending a Common Ground Workshop in Orange, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, Tulare, Ventura, or Yuba counties, please email us.

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Worldviews Education Watch (WEW) is a free service provided by BridgeBuilders offering the latest information on religious liberty and public education drawn from court cases, policies and current events. It will also share examples of successful partnerships and cooperation between public schools and faith communities.

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