We just got through a big election for school board here in San Angelo, Texas, and the winner was the long-time incumbent. The challenger went down pretty hard, losing by something like 50+ points in an election that saw just a few thousand votes cast. By all of the campaign signs around town, you would have expected a stronger turnout, but as the adage goes: signs don’t vote (though, in fairness to signs, neither do most people).
The election was about taxing and spending, and efforts to tax more in order to spend more by the current school board. Ultimately, the status quo won out, as the challenger was unable to inspire trust in a new approach.
Public schooling is a confusing phenomenon. What is it trying to achieve? Some answers are easy — opportunity, care, inspiration, basic language and math skills. These are easy answers because they rest on so many assumptions. Why do the public schools have to do all of this? If not for public schools, what would come of a community? If a person did not learn basic language and math skills, what would come of that person? If a person did not receive care at our public institutions, would care not be provided at all? What kinds of opportunities are created by public schooling, and what opportunities are lost or destroyed?
We think so little about our answers to these questions that public school politics seem to just be about dollars and cents. The challenger in the election argued both that pouring money into renovating school facilities might not translate into education gains, but the concern seemed much more about the potential lost money than the stagnant debate over how to improve education. He advocated voucher programs and merit pay for teachers, but these are also policy ideas that defer the debate over educational philosophy and public schooling’s essential purposes to someone or something (i.e. market forces) other than we the community that is here needing to figure this out.
What do we want for our kids, and how does public schooling fit into that? What do we want from our kids, as they progress into adulthood? What can we actually expect, given where we are and what we are doing?