From educational Horizons, Summer 1997

Public Schools: Our Face in the Mirror
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11

The thing about mirrors is they reflect reality with remorseless accuracy. Do we exercise and watch what we eat? There it is in the mirror, flat belly, taut muscles, and all. But if we sit on our duff and gobble Twinkies, the less flattering consequences are also reflected with implacable exactitude. America's public schools provide a similarly accurate mirror image of our nation. Like it or not, what's wrong with them is, for the most part, wrong with us. And what is right about Anmerica is generally right about our schools, too

Public schools didn't used to provide this accurate an image if our nation. In the so-called ' good old days,' most of the kids from the 'wrong side of the tracks' dropped out of school long before graduation. Consequently, public schools provided a relatively flattering reflection of America. Today, however, children from this "other America" tend to stay in school. As a consequence, public schools now accurately more reflect America's failings as well as its successes.

Look at today's public schools, for example, and we immediately see a reflection of the intense social inequality that is one of America's least handsome aspects. The U.S. has the most uneven distribution of wealth of any major industrialized nation. In fact by 1992, the richest 20 percent of Americans controlled a full 80 percent of the nation's wealth. These are the Americans who dominate our economy and, through campaign contributions, special interest lobbying, and participation in policy planning, our government. These are the Americans that write the rules (?), rules which usually end up favoring the privileged and powerful.

This is why Congress cut billions of dollars from employment, job training and educational programs, and billions more from investment in infrastructure to help pay for a tax cut for big businesses and the wealthy. This is why they slashed Aid to Dependent Children. This is why they reduced school lunches, veterans medical benefits and housing for seniors. This is why they made it harder to enforce health and safety standards, to inspect workplaces, or to fine an employer who violate the law. This is why they permit private health insurance benefits to evaporate. This is why they stand idle while real earnings decrease, average family income erodes, deregulation demolishes industries and lives. This is why millions of American's jobs are being sacrificed to "right-sizing," job exports and mergers without government challenge.

As the rich get richer, the rest of America gets left behind. And an unconsionably large portion of America's children end up living in poverty in shattered neighborhoods. In the end the social consequences of this whole sad litany, every jot and tittle of it, ends up in chronically underfunded inner city classrooms where most teachers bravely keep trying despite these disasterous social conditions, inadequate resources and public ridicule by leading corporate execs and their apologists.

Ironically, those who benefit most from economic and social inequities, preposterously overpaid corporate CEO's for example, scapegoat public schooling to dodge responsibility for the social consequences of their own excesses. Encouraged by most of the nation's governors, for example, some big business bosses bash teachers, issue bromides about the need for educators to raise their expectations, caution against "throwing money" at school problems, and emphasize the "need" to "break the public school monopoly."

Stinking red herrings draw the most hounds; so these so-called "reformers" lay down false scents by declaring that test scores are falling, which is untrue; by proclaiming that dropout rates are increasing, when they aren't; by claiming that spending more money on schooling makes no difference, when it does; and by warning that illiteracy is rising, which it isn't. To make matters worse, they are joined in their phoney jeremiads by the likes of former Secretary of Education William Bennett. This educational Chicken Little spends a good deal of time scurrying about the country literally declaring that "The sky has fallen on children in American schools...".

To be sure, our public schools reflect all of America's sins, not just those of the corporate power elite and their government apologists. Consider, for example, America's parents. Too many of them are selfish and spoiled; too many are permissive, cruel or foolish; and too many have come to believe that affluence equals the good life. And like the finest plate glass mirror, our public schools reflect the melancholy consequences of all this.

If the enemies of public education dismantle our schools they will also smash America's reflection into such tiny fragments we might never see ourselves whole again. Once that is accomplished, even more profane developments become possible. Remember Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray? Dorian's portrait mysteriously registers his degeneration by, for example, developing ever deeper lines of cruelty around the mouth. Tormented to desperation by this revelation of his evolving decadence, Dorian attempts to destroy his conscience by slashing his picture. Those who want to dismantle public education may have the same motivation. They slash at public schools to kill a reflection that pricks their conscience.

We might also profitably think about the comic strip character "Pogo." He was the little possum who prophetically pronounced, "We have met the enemy, and it is us!" Before we get too busy bashing public schooling, let's keep Pogo in mind. And remember too that public schools also reflect our nation's best qualities, not just the worst. And, happily, there still are more things right than wrong with America.