'In Defense of the Public Schools' By Paul Kurtz, Editor, _Free Inquiry_ magazine, profess

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"In Defense of the Public Schools" By Paul Kurtz, Editor, _Free Inquiry_ magazine, professor of philosophy Editorial, Fall 1992, Copyright 1992. Powerful forces in America are seeking to privatize the public schools. Proponents argue that parents ought to have the freedom to send their children to the schools of their choice. President George Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him, have proposed the voucher plan, which would provide $1,000 per family of low and middle income, no doubt as a first step. Similarly, entrepreneur Christopher Whittle and Benno Schmidt, outgoing president of Yale University, have announced an ambitious plan to create a chain of 1,000 private schools. They say that these schools will allow "free choice" (a desirable libertarian goal) and also provide for "innovation" and "experiment" (also desirable goals). They hope that this will be only the first of many similar private chains (_a_la_ McDonald's and Burger King) competing for the consumer's dollar. The going rate will be $5,500 in tuition at first, but they promise scholarships for poor and lower-middle class children, though undoubtedly the awards will be limited. There are serious drawbacks to this proposal that need to be weighed carefully before we rush into _laissez-faire_ education. First, it's simply not true that all public schools are failures. This is a libel against dedicated teachers and caring communities where parents and other citizens are involved in running the schools -- approving budgets and achieving education excellence. Granted, many inner city schools face serious problems, but they are a reflection of deeper social and economic problems. Second, and more important, it is the public schools that have helped to create American democracy and to blend the children of immigrants of earlier generations into a viable society. The public schools provide common ground for children of different economic, racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds to live and learn together in shared experience, as humanist John Dewey pointed out. They nourished the civic virtues of the democratic society. Today there are loud voices against "the melting pot" -- perhaps "mixed salad" is a better metaphor, for all took part in the common plate, yet retained some identity. But what is the alternative? Entirely separate and unequal schools in which children of different ethnicities and nationalities do not have the opportunity to meet? This kind of educational system can only further divide the country into competing groups, and it is a recipe for disaster. Instead of engendering multicultural respect, it might further exacerbate differences and make conflict a permanent part of the cultural scene. Public schools have provided unparalleled opportunities for learning the arts and sciences and developing the skills of critical thinking and an appreciation for the value of tolerance. Replacing them with a private system endangers the very fabric of our democracy.


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