20 March 2008

Free Universal Education Not Compulsory Schooling

Continuing my participation in the Bridging Differences Blog I posted the following comment to clarify my sense of what is at stake when we consider the idea of compulsory schooling:

Thanks for your provocative thoughts on this blog. Obviously you hit a hot button for me and I hope that my contribution to the discussion is more than a mere rant. I want to clarify my perspective since my previous post might not have been clear. Since then I realized that there is a distinction between education and schooling in my mind that may make my reactions different from those who haven’t thought about it the same way.

An educated citizenry is a compelling interest of a democratic society. The failure to empower citizens via education will lead to the demise of meaningful feedback to correct abuses of the power to govern and thus threatens to destroy the democratic functions of the state. So, the compelling state interest is in education, not in schooling, per se.

I recognize our society’s interest in enabling citizens to become educated, but I do not support the state’s current use of power to compel attendance in schools that have a history of failing to educate their students. The government loses it’s moral authority to compel attendance in public schools when those schools fail to educate students, despite the fact that they have retained their political authority to do so.

I believe that some opposition to compulsory schooling, like John Taylor Gatto’s, is based on the idea that if our society provides an adequate free universal educational system then our citizen’s are smart enough to take full advantage of it without the state’s insulting them with compulsory attendance laws. But even if they are not, the free and universal aspects of the educational system are the important parts, not the presence or absence of compulsion.

An education system worthy of the world’s most powerful democracy is more than just a bunch of classrooms for kids. A worthy education system includes public libraries, private schools, the internet, and any other places and ways that people learn. Therefore I imagine systemic reforms along the following lines would be more appropriate for restoring the moral authority of our government to inspire (or compel, if necessary) education:

Reorganize public schools from middle school/junior high on up into free community colleges for all ages. Reorganize elementary schools to allow children to learn how to be citizens in a democracy, not peons in a hierarchy. Ensure that elementary schools provide a combination of academically focused classroom experiences and socially focused community learning experiences where the children and their parents have a significant voice in determining what’s the best combination for each child. Give older students the option to attend local community college classes, too, at their own discretion. Make sure that every student has more than one option for free education for as long as they are under 18 years old.

If compulsion is to be a component of the system then compel all citizens, no matter their age, to remain in the education system until they have attained basic mastery of core literacies in written language, mathematics, music, drawing, science, religion and critical thinking. Have them create a portfolio of work in each core literacy, in addition to having passed one of several tests in each core literacy to document their eligibility to leave the education system.

The only age-segregation that I would preserve is the distinction between Elementary School (which is for anyone who is not of full legal driving age) and the community college system (which is for anyone of any age who chooses to attend and meets the pre-requisites for the particular classes they choose.)

The point is to ensure that all citizens become educated. That interest does not evaporate upon a citizen reaching 18 years of age. Our society needs to provide a diversity of educational options in order to achieve that goal and the state should be fully subsidizing children’s learning and the basic education of adults who cannot afford it.

I agree that there is a moral burden to invoking the state’s power to compel citizen’s to behave in certain ways. The current public school system has lost it’s moral authority even though it has retained it’s political authority. My reaction to the previous post was based on this idea. It is the height of incompetence and arrogance to assert political authority in the absence of moral authority.

The current presidential administration, regardless of your opinion of them, has demonstrated a consistent inability to distinguish between moral and political authority. I think John Thompson’s comment is saying something similar to this. NCLB, for instance, has been based primarily on the exertion of their political authority without regard for how it will affect their moral authority. As a result they have steadily eroded away their moral authority. The opposition holds little or no respect for them and they are finding that even their allies are a lot more cautious (the ones who haven’t jumped ship already) than when they had some moral authority left. The same could be said of their policies in Iraq, as well.

The policy debate in education needs to be about educating our citizenry, not just forcing children to attend school. How do we, as a society, enable our government to regain the moral authority to get the job done? I suspect that thinking strictly in terms of schools for children is not going to address the real challenges of education today.
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