Americans have never been able to quite agree on the purpose of education, and a brief look into the historical development of the institution in the United States provides a good explanation as to why. Public education, at varying points in time, was aimed at the following targets: biblical education, basic literacy, a means by which to uphold the democracy, creating a more efficient workforce, and the advancement of capitalism. In 1997, Labaree distilled America’s sprawling history of education into three main yet competing purposes:

  1.     Democratic equality
  2.     Social efficiency
  3.     Social mobility

Put simply, American citizens envision public education as a way to ensure everyone has sufficient knowledge to participate in democracy, as a means to create an efficient and profitable workforce, and as a way to bridge the gap of social inequities by providing citizens a sort of social ladder to climb. The problem is that these goals do not align, and citizens prioritize each differently. The result has been a system that attempts too much with too little. It’s not difficult to imagine that in an attempt to embody even just these three competing goals, the education system would fall short.

The issue of reopening schools has raised a question we’ve been putting off for far too long: what is the purpose of public education?

The competing goals of education is, of course, not a new problem. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the question anew: what is the purpose of public education? And, in so doing, it has illuminated purposes not specifically addressed in the three goals Labaree highlighted.

On Tuesday, July 7, President Trump and Secretary of Education Besty DeVos weighed in on the reopening of schools this coming fall. Per Trump and DeVos, the CDC’s guidelines are too strict, and, as a result, Trump proclaimed that he would apply pressure to state governors to enact a full reopening of schools this fall. While that phrasing sounds vague, what he’s alluding to is anything but; if schools do not attempt a full reopening, Trump and DeVos will do their best to withhold federal education funds. Most public schools’ funding comes from the state and local level, but about 10% comes from the federal budget. Not receiving that portion of the budget would be a significant blow to most schools, particularly as the bulk of the federal education budget is allocated to Title 1 programs, which fund services for students in lower socioeconomic groups.

It is unclear whether or not federal funds could actually be withheld. Restricting the federal budget would have to go through the Senate, which is unlikely to pass such a bill. However, the pandemic has greatly limited state and local budgets, and most districts are in dire need of increased federal funding. Any increased funding that has not already been passed needs to meet Trump’s approval, so his threat is not entirely empty, and he has continued to threaten withholding school funding should they not reopen.

The risks for reopening schools at full capacity are many. As more information emerges on the short- and long-term effects of the coronavirus, several things are becoming more clear: the warmer summer weather did not result in the decline of infections we’d hoped for; while children do not seem to become infected at the same rate as older populations, they are not immune to the disease; and, if South Africa’s numbers are any indication, adult school staff members are likely to become infected at double the rate of children, creating a real health crisis for adults in schools.

The risks of not reopening, though, are likewise serious and real, something I know firsthand. While I am approaching the reopening of schools this fall from the perspective of a teacher, I am also approaching it from that of a parent. I have a rising third grade son with multiple disabilities, and he was profoundly impacted by the sudden shuttering of schools this past spring. While I imagine there are likely gaps in his academic development, I am mostly unconcerned about those. Research conducted after crises like Hurricane Katrina indicate that many students can make up vital information missed by simply moving forward in the curriculum and remediating as necessary. What I am most concerned about are the social and emotional needs schooling provides for my son and many other children. Schools meet very real needs that are entirely unrelated to the academic. I’ve known this firsthand for some time now, but after living through my son’s school closure in the spring, I know it on a visceral level that is hard to put to words.

Beyond the social and emotional needs that public schools meet, it has become apparent that we rely on them for much more. For example, though schools were closed, most districts continued to provide meal deliveries to students. This did not come without cost or effort. While my former school district struggled to define the duties of its staff during this unprecedented time, instructional assistants, other staff, and volunteers showed up to pack hundreds of meals daily. Bus drivers packed their buses to the brim and delivered breakfast and lunch to anyone under the age of eighteen. Many districts struggled to find their footing on such little notice, but food delivery was one of the first processes to be ironed out, and for good reason: without schools, many students would not eat.

Concerning statistics point to another need public education meets: since schools closed in mid-March, instances of domestic abuse have been on the rise. Though it would be impossible to prove a causal link here, it is logical to infer that because students who live in unsafe homes are without the haven schools provide five days a week, there is more opportunity for abuse to occur.

And finally, while DeVos and Trump mostly reference social and emotional impacts school has on children, I suspect they are really more concerned with another burden schools have been soundlessly shouldering for some time now: the weight of the United States’ economy. Though schools’ flimsy infrastructure has been creaking under the pressure for decades, nobody was prepared for the utter economic devastation that came crashing down with school closures. Even as many parents received the go-ahead to return to work in a limited capacity, they found themselves unable to; their children could not attend school, and it left parents to piece together childcare they often could not afford or find in the midst of a pandemic.

The risks of not reopening, though, are likewise serious and real, something I know firsthand.

I find myself in a similar predicament. I desperately want my son to return to school in the fall. I want to drop him at the doors of his school knowing he will be met with the human connection I was simply not able to replicate for him at home. I need my son to go to school, though, because I will be going back to school full-time. Despite the fact that my own students will be doing a mix of online and in-person learning, I will be required to be in my school building to teach five periods every day, and my son will be without regular care. Hiring a babysitter or putting him in an after school program (if one even exists) may not be enough, either; he will be expected to participate in virtual learning during the days that he is home, and he needs an adult capable of facilitating virtual programs and to jump the hurdles his disabilities impose on his learning.

It feels very lose-lose, and it raises an important question: Why are schools responsible for needs that are so vast and unrelated to academics?

Why do we rely on public schools to feed our children? Why don’t we have programs that can operate outside the scope of schools to intervene in situations that pose danger to children? Why on earth is our national economy reliant on schools for childcare? And if these are the newly agreed upon purposes of public education in America—something I personally cannot accept—then why aren’t we funding schools appropriately?

I have numerous personal qualms with the way the national conversation surrounding reopening schools is unfolding, chief of which is the omission of educators’ voices in formal planning, and the nonchalant manner school staffs’ health is being regarded (when it is regarded at all). I feel personally insulted by the insinuation that my colleagues and I failed this past spring when I know firsthand the hard work we put into making an impossible situation at least slightly better.

But the issue of reopening schools has raised a question we’ve been putting off for far too long: what is the purpose of public education? Current rhetoric suggests (and sometimes outright states) that teachers’ jobs are to meet the social and emotional needs of our children and to provide the free childcare that makes our economy go. I contend that we must push back against that notion, or, at the very least, interrogate it more deeply before we accept it. Is that the best function of public education?

Surely meeting social and emotional needs comes with the territory of working with children, and equitable access to education means it is rightfully tuition-free. But if there is to be no supporting infrastructure to help public schools meet these needs—if we land on “yes, that is the primary purpose of schools in the 21st century”—then shouldn’t we be willing to put our money where our mouths are? Public education has been grossly underfunded for decades. Many states are facing teacher shortages because of lack of support in the classroom as well as compensation that is disproportionate to the level of formal education and expertise required of teachers. Both of these funding issues are exacerbated by the pandemic, right when schools require additional funding. Lack of funding results in a wider teacher-to-student ratio, which is even more problematic now: schools cannot safely return to school at full capacity in the fall because class sizes are too big to accommodate the social distancing required to return as safely as possible. (Anyone who has ever worked in a school can tell you, though, that class sizes have been too big to implement researched best practices for a long time.) In addition, lack of funding has made virtual learning difficult by the fact that students did not have equitable access to technology.

And yet, rather than aid schools to stand in the gap—rather than support the professionals who will put themselves at risk to return the rest of the nation to  some sense of normalcy—DeVos has stated that the administration is “incentivizing” a return to school by threatening to cut funding. We must call such an incentive what it really is—a threat, and one that stands to harm our society’s most vulnerable children. As we grapple with the rightful scope of public education, let us do so with this in mind: education, in any form, will eventually fail. It is a powerful but limited entity that ultimately reflects the best and worst of the society from which it springs up. However, the attitudes that we approach the construction of education systems with will endure, a testament to the way we regarded the image bearing human beings within said system.

In his essay “To Be or to Do,” John Truslow Adams wrote the following: “There are two educations. One should teach us to make a living and the other how to live.” Here Adams addressed two often juxtaposed visions of education: vocational training or an examination of the humanities. Though this debate was most popular at the turn of the 20th century, we could glean a great deal of wisdom from it today. Public education can and certainly does instruct children in both the educations Adams’s references, but good educators know that learning is not confined to the walls of the classroom. In fact, frequently the most authentic learning experiences are those that spring forth from the world outside of school—the one we observe in our homes, neighborhoods, churches, and community. Our children are watching the way we navigate this pandemic, and our actions are teaching them how to live. Are we okay with the lessons we are imparting?


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