On the Defense of Public Schools: Dilemmas in a Conservative Era

On the Defense of Public Schools: Dilemmas in a Conservative Era

In a recent essay in Dissent (“The Real Costs of Education,” Spring 1996), Richard Rothstein provided an illuminating critique of the contention by many critics of the public schools that budgets have steadily risen over the past three decades while the system has continued on its disastrously failing path. His focus in the Dissent article was on the technical issue of how funding levels and needs are to be understood and why the image of increased funding is an illusion. But Rothstein’s larger point is that the generally accepted judgment that public schools have been consistently “failing” is profoundly mistaken. This revisionist idea—that the much-maligned public system is in fact a success, steadily improving and respectable even on those international comparisons that most people believe show America’s pathetic educational achievement (especially compared to those scary Asian students in Japan and Korea)—is gaining support in educational debates where the “myth of public school failure” has been dominant.

I believe that much of what Rothstein and other revisionists claim in their deconstruction of the common wisdom presented by media seers like George Will or Diane Ravitch about how awful schools are—so much worse than they were in the golden past, and so dangerous a threat to the country’s economic, cultural, and moral future—is important and true. But I also think that the terms that frame the discussion repress an important perspective on school reform: the family of ideas labeled as “progressive education.” It seems to me worthwhile to see how a defense of the institutional status quo has been taken up by political liberals like Rothstein, and echoed even in unreconstructed radical venues like Z magazine.

Rothstein presented the revisionist perspective most completely four years ago in “The Myth of Public School Failure,” an essay published in the American Prospect. He argued that there is no shortage of educated workers at any level of the American labor force; that public school achievement has improved in recent years despite very little expansion in the funding of regular educational programs (most of the new money has been absorbed by “special education”); that only a very small proportion of school resources supports the administrative bureaucracy; that teachers have all the freedom they need for creativity and are not seriously constrained by the way traditional schools are governed, though bureaucracy does impose some cost in terms of innovation. The “iconoclastic conclusion” that he found “hard to avoid” is that “the public school system is mostly on the right track and the best way to improve the results, especially for minority children, is to pour more money into it.”

Rothstein’s message to his liberal American Prospect readers was that two prominent reform slogans—choice and decentralization (or “site-based manageme...

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