Will the Coronavirus Kill Public Education?

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, those looking to kill public education in New Orleans took the opportunity and ran with it. Now, with schools closed across the United States because of the coronavirus crisis, will those preaching privatization make another big push?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made no secret about it, she is using the coronavirus crisis to move forward on her longstanding objective of using public dollars to support access to private schools.

President Trump raised eyebrows this year when he referred to “government schools” in his State of the Union address, a phrase he also has used on the campaign stump. It's a jab at the locally run public schools most of us attended, and that still educate nine in 10 students.

The reason he uses the alienating term “government schools,” usually preceded by the word “failing,” is simple: By painting public schools as second rate or even disastrous, he hopes to boost efforts to divert funding to private schools.

But we know better.

For centuries, American public schools have served educational and civic purposes. They have been the foundation upon which generation after generation has gained the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve the American Dream. True, there’s room for improvement in all of our schools, some more than others. But these 100,000 institutions offer millions of children the quality education they need to be prepared to live and work in an increasingly diverse society.

Despite being under attack since the 1970s, public schools still are widely embraced. This is in part because most families are pleased with their own schools. They’re familiar with the curriculum and culture, know the administrators and teachers, and realize they are doing a good job educating and caring for their children.

Thanks to skewed ratings and persistently negative rhetoric, many imagine that everyone else’s school is doing a lousy job of educating kids. But despite what corporate privatizers and certain religious and political interests say, the decline of public schools is a myth.

By and large there has not been a downward trend in the performance of public schools. The federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, shows that for 9-year-olds, reading scores have gone up substantially, and math scores have gone up even more since the 1970s. Gains are steady and consistent across race, gender, performance level and type of school.

The picture is less rosy in high schools, where the NAEP data show that scores pretty much have flatlined since the ’70s. But we would be way off base to say these kids are achieving less than their parents and grandparents did. The whole notion of bygone glory days is bogus.

The glory of public education remains very real. The United States tries to educate everyone and give each student an opportunity to succeed. And in healthier times, this has created an economy that is the envy of the world and made us pre-eminent in science, technology and innovation. A commitment to educating everyone doesn’t threaten our global standing.

On the contrary, a significant backward slide will happen if we siphon off public school money to religious and other private schools, and set up a separate and unequal education system.

Let’s never lose sight of the triumph of public education in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our public schools taught millions of immigrants how to speak English, educated them about our history and democracy, and helped them become successful and engaged citizens. To a great extent, we even learned to highly value each other’s humanity. Our public schools did that!

Today, our severely polarized nation needs to pull people together regardless of economic standing, race or place of birth. Calls for budget cuts to public school budgets and increased funding for school privatization threaten that mission. A case in point is the president’s proposal for a $5 billion federal tax credit program that would fund scholarships to private and religious schools to supposedly save children “who are trapped in government schools.”

As for that contemptuous term, of course government funds public schools. That is as it should be. Public education is a public good, just as essential as national defense, scientific research, police and firefighters, or addressing a pandemic.

Instead of deriding public schools, let’s praise, protect, improve and invest in them. After the coronavirus shutdown, let’s modernize curriculum to reflect technological and scientific advancements and expand arts instruction to safeguard our children’s very souls. And let’s strengthen the assimilation function of public schools with more civics instruction to boost voting rates, combat tolerance for authoritarianism, and foster a respect and appreciation for democracy.

Public schools, by any name, remain our best hope for bringing us together and ensuring that each new generation can achieve the American Dream.