America’s Democracy Can’t Afford for Our Public School Experiment to Fail

Writing for the Bush Institute, Ann Wicks recently penned an opinion piece about the need for public education in a democracy. Excerpts from the piece appear below: 

A district superintendent, a school board member, a teacher, and a concerned parent walk into a bar, arguing about COVID-19 protocols, year-end testing, and book lists. Who pays the tab? The kids.

The idea of public education as a civil right, as an on-ramp to opportunity, is decidedly American in its boldness. But the execution of that idea has faltered under a lack of capacity and will, especially for our most vulnerable children – those living in poverty, those with special needs, and those who are English language learners.

The impact of the pandemic on American schools has ranged from disrupted to catastrophic. The reverberation of that impact for families has fractured the tacit agreement between Americans and their public school system. As responses to the pandemic varied widely by state and district, parents stepped forward to ask questions about everything from virus protocols to curriculum choices to bathroom policy. School choice has surged as families sought options beyond what their traditional public system was able or willing to provide. 

Is the great American public school experiment over? Can we ever rebuild trust in the public system? 

Simply put, we can’t afford for the experiment to end. Public schools should evolve, absolutely. But if we are serious about sustaining and strengthening American democracy, then we need public schools serving American kids and families for years to come.

In the fall of 2020, 48 million children enrolled in public K-12 schools. That means millions of families and thousands of communities rely on their local traditional public system today – and are likely to do so in the future. We absolutely need charters, private schools, and new emerging models of school, but they are unlikely to supplant the traditional system entirely. 

This requires we rebuild the sense of purpose that inspired Americans to fund, with their own tax dollars, a system that served all kids, not just their own. And that means rebuilding trust. Doing so requires something of all of us – educators, parents, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

For more, see: