Harvey H. Jackson: In praise of public schools
Jul 31, 2013 | 3760 views |  0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Here it is August and still there are parents wondering where their darlings will go to school this year. They are wondering because of the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, which offers tax credits and scholarships to parents who want to take their children out of “failing” public schools and place them in “non-failing” public schools or private schools.

Although the act was amended to clarify what supporters mean when they say a school is “failing,” if I were a parent whose child qualified for a transfer, how could I be sure that the private school available to me was not “failing,” as well? Most private schools and private school students are not tested, assessed, evaluated and compared to others as fully and as frequently as public schools (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing nonetheless). This means the criteria applied to public schools to determine if they are “failing” cannot be applied to private schools unless the private schools jump through the same hoops through which public schools must jump.

This raises the question of whether the state should give a tax break to a family that pulls a student out of a “failing” public school and sends him or her to a private school that, by the same criteria, might also be “failing.”

I’ll leave it to minds mightier than mine to figure that out.

For my part, I want to simply point out what a lot of folks seem to be ignoring — that in one very important aspect, public schools have done a far better job of educating students than private schools have, can or, for that matter, even try to do.

Much has been made about how many private schools were created so that white children would not have to attend classes with black children. Less has been said about how private schools also separate the social and economic “haves” from the social and economic “have-nots.”

Most private schools downplayed this, though the founders of one were up-front when they named theirs “Patrician Academy.”

But whether subtle or in-your-face, the result is much the same. Tuition draws a line between those who can afford private schooling and those who cannot.

Public schools do not draw such a distinction. In those classrooms, the children of the mill owner and the mill hand, the planter and the sharecropper, the boss and the bossed, sit together, learn together, eat lunch together, play sports together and often hang around together after school. Certainly, public schools have class-based cliques, but in their democratic stew it was possible for the less-affluent child to realize that they can achieve if they work hard, and the more affluent child can discover they are not “better” because they have advantages others do not.

One might argue that AAA tax-credits and scholarships will put many of the less-affluent students into the more-elite private schools, but thus far those private institutions have shown little enthusiasm for accepting state scholarship students whose money might come with strings attached and whose enrollment might alter their student body’s social profile.

Public schools, even those in affluent areas, draw from a socioeconomic pool much deeper and broader than private schools, and as a consequence they give their students a deeper and broader education both inside and outside the classroom.

Even though I would have been better prepared for the career I chose if I had gone to school with black children (the first time I was in an integrated classroom, I was the teacher), I learned about diversity in other ways. I went to school with some students whose families were affluent, some whose families were solidly middle class and some whose homes still lacked indoor plumbing. In my school, there were church-goers and church- avoiders, students whose parents had college degrees and students whose parents could barely read.

Of course, this diversity was nothing new. My father often told the story of when he was in elementary school. Some children from a sharecropper family came with their lunches in syrup pails. When they walked, the pails rattled. During recess, Daddy slipped back into the cloakroom where lunches were kept, opened a pail and peeked inside. There he found a handful of hickory nuts and a rock to crack them.

That incident taught my father a lesson about life that he never would have learned if he had been in a school where everyone was just like him, a lesson so important that he passed it on to me.

Yet, in all the talk about “failing” public schools, I have not heard much said about this, which is a shame, for public education not only serves the public, it is the public.

Those mighty minds who are calculating success and failure need to find a way to factor this into the equation.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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