The Public Good
"We defend the right of parents to choose alternative, private, religious, or independent schools, but continue to declare that those schools should be funded by private sources of income." —1985, General Synod XV Pronouncement on Public Education
"The public schools belong to us, the people, and are controllable by democratic means... We must protect the children in those schools, for such is not only the kingdom of heaven but also the future of our country and of the yet-to-be-realized democratic dream of equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, ethnic origin or social class. —1991, General Synod XVIII Pronouncement, "Support of Quality, Integrated Education for All Children in Public Schools"
"While as a matter of justice and morality we strive always to expand the individual rights guaranteed by our government for those who have lacked rights, we also affirm our commitment to vibrant communities and recognize the important role of government for providing public services on behalf of the community." —2005, General Synod XXV, "Resolution for the Common Good"
Is the Public Important in Public Education?
Have we lost our capacity to think about a public role for public institutions? At a time when business is often assumed to be the only "efficient manager," when individual initiative exercised through choice is admired as a singular virtue, when parents are commonly defined as consumers responsible for regulating educational services through market choice (voting with their feet), and when citizen ownership and responsibility for public institutions is rarely considered, we need to think again about the meaning of the public.
Theologian Philip Wogaman defines public laws and public institutions as the primary means by which a modern nation-state can realize the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 37-40). Wogaman writes, "...justice is the community's guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society... If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation." Wogaman's definition of justice assumes that the laws and public institutions of a society are the mechanisms for distributing opportunity, or by contrast providing opportunity for some while denying it for others. A democratic society can be a be "good society" only if its citizens faithfully hold themselves responsible for insisting that their representatives rectify injustice in laws and public institutions.
Privatization Here is our web page on privatiization of public education.
Here is the Justice and Witness Ministries 2013 Message on Public Education:The Public Purpose of Public Education. And here are the UCC's 2013 succinct, updated talking points to help faithful advocates reflect on and speak to what needs to happen today in public school reform.
Check out our web page on the privatization of public education and a further page, Charter Schools and Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs) Are a Form of Privatization.
Public Education Justice---Where Do Charter Schools Fit In? This short resource from the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy will help you or your congregation learn about and reflect on the role of charter schools. Are children in your congregation or your community attending charter schools? Maybe you have been asked to serve on the board of a charter school. Perhaps your congregation is considering forming a charter school. What questions should people of faith be asking to explore the role of charter schools for the common good?
February 7, 2011 Witness for Justice: Sad, Sad School Reform debunks the myth that private contractors manage schools more effectively than public school districts.
May 16, 2013: Witness for Justice column asks Will We Stand Against the Rationing of Education?
May 2, 2013: Sojourners guest post on God's Politics Blog, Public Education for the Common Good.
April 10, 2013: Helen Ladd, professor of public policy at Duke University defines The Perils of a 'Private' Vision for North Carolina Schools.
January 7, 2013: Historically the Title I formula has been a primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child. But that is changing. Specifically the U.S. Department of Education is transforming Title I—the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—from a formula program driving additional funds to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children into a grant competition by which the U.S. Department of Education rewards what it calls innovation. Read about this in a new Witness for Justice column: A System Where Every Poor Child Is a Winner.
December 10, 2012: Is the American Dream a reality for children today or only an American Fantasy?
June 20, 2012: Judge rules Post-Katrina School Firings Wrongful.
April 2012: Abby Rapoport explains role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to undermine the common good. "ALEC, which proudly calls itself 'the nation's largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators,' has operated as a largely secret arena in which corporate sponsors and conservative legislators share ideas.The group offers model legislation to its members, which has in the past simply been introduced in legislatures unchanged."
November 17, 2011 Lee Fang explores the role of privatized on-line, virtual schools in Selling Out Schools.
January 2011: JoAnn Barkan explores the role of venture philanthropy to push privatization of public education in Got Dough? Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy.
Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond presented this address, The Service of Democratic Education, on the occasion of her being awarded the Teachers College medal for distinguished service. Here is just a taste: “Then as now, TC graduates set the standard. Highly educated and deeply committed, you and your colleagues have gone out to plant the ideals of democratic, progressive education as leaders in schools, colleges and governments all around the world… That commitment is more important now than ever before. We live in a nation that is on the verge of forgetting its children. The United States now has a far higher poverty rate for children than any other industrialized country…. Our leaders do not talk about these things. They simply say of poor children, ‘Let them eat tests.’”
Check out our web page: Undermining the Common Good in New Orleans' Schools after the Hurricanes
October 2009:"They Stole our Public Schools and They Stole our Democracy..." a Witness for Justice column, explores the meaning of the "public" in public education. An important question is whether requiring states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, as federal Race to the Top guidelines will demand, will serve democracy.
UCC Resources on the Common Good and Public Education
In a Resolution for the Common Good , General Synod 25 called all settings of the United Church of Christ to "work to make our culture reflect the following values: that societies and nations are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens; that government policy and services are central to serving the common good; that the sum total of individual choices in any private marketplace does not necessarily constitute the public good; (and) that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses."
The 2008 Message on Public Education compares two cultural narratives, the Common Good and the American Dream. Both are embedded into the way we understand our public life. They are also used by politicians to manipulate us and sometimes to obscure the real issues. We are influenced by the narrative beneath the surface when laws and policies are framed in the language and assumptions of these familiar stories. Author Bill McKibben traces the aphorism, "God helps those who help themselves," not to the Bible, but instead to Benjamin Franklin. Without criticizing the virtues of careful and responsible living, this resource suggests that the core ethical principles of our faith incorporate not individualism but instead a different set of values about community, mutuality, and obligation to our neighbors, especially those most in need.
Whose Child Left Behind? Why?, is the final report of the United Church of Christ Public Education Task Force, the story of four years visiting public schools by a group of lay and ordained UCC leaders. The Task Force points out that because public institutions are a microcosm of the society in which they are set, school visits forced task force members "to discuss some of the deepest injustices of our time—institutional racism, white privilege, systemic resource inequity, and blaming the victim, whether that victim is a child or a public school teacher."
2006 Message on Public Education includes a study guide (p. 4) for General Synod 25's Resolution for the Common Good.
Privatization, a 2003 Justice & Witness Ministries resource, explores the implications of attempts to privatize many sectors of our society including public education, water, Social Security, health care, prisons, and the military.
Our Public Schools' Inclusive Mission Brings Us Together , the cover story in the 2003 Message on Public Education, was published soon after the U.S. Supreme Court found the Cleveland Voucher Program to be constitutional. The UCC Justice and Witness Ministries had been an amicus in a brief opposing vouchers in the Zelman Case.
Check Out these Excellent Books on the Meaning of "the Public"
Mike Rose's Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us (New York: The New Press, 2009), is a small, accessible, and thoughtful volume, in whichRose worries that, "We've lost hope in the public sphere and grab at private solutions, which undercut the sharing of obligation and risk and keep us scrambling for individual advantage." "Our major policy documents contain little mention of the obligation of government to its citizens, of protections against inequality, of a comprehensive notion of educational opportunity. No surprise, then, that we do not find a robust discussion of the notion of the public or of the democratic citizen—that portrayal of the citizen not just as an economic being, but as a deliberative, civic, moral being as well." (p. 168)"Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we're evaluating... its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose... Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination... There have been times in our history when the idea of "the public" has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now." (pp. 155-156)
From Benjamin Barber, 2007, check out Chapter 4, "Privatizing Citizens: The Making of Civic Schizophrenia," in Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). Here is a taste of what you'll find to contemplate and discuss in Chapter 4:
“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power (brute force), personal skills (randomly distributed), and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak and anarchy ultimately dominates the strong and the weak, undermining security for both—the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (pp. 143-144)
Naomi Klein's 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, explores privatization in many sectors. Tracing the role of man-made and natural disasters as excuses for the imposition of massive social change, Klein defines her subject—disaster capitalism—by describing the takeover and charterization of public schools in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina:
"In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans' school system took place with military speed and precision. .. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4. Before that storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union's contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired... New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, "the nation's preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools..." I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, "disaster capitalism." (p. 6)
In a Book Review, Edith Rasell, the UCC's Minister for Economic Justice, explores the many additional national and international implications of Klein's theory of a "Shock Doctrine."