Veneration of private over public is a mistake

Susie Kaeser

“A private school experience at a public school cost,” reads the headline on the Lake Erie Preparatory School’s home page. The school is one of six charter schools in the Cleveland area sponsored by the for-profit ICAN charter school company.

What exactly is a “private school experience”? This website message implies that it is something to aspire to, better and safer than a public school education, but out of reach because of cost. Remember that private schools exclude some people, and public schools don’t. By likening itself to a private school, this charter is saying, “You can have an elite education for free!”  

By funding charter schools—out of funds allocated to local school districts—and allowing them to operate in ways that violate our expectations for public institutions, the state legislature has embraced private education at the expense of the system of public schools for which it is responsible.

I don’t blame disappointed parents for wanting the best possible education for their children. My beef is with the legislature for taking a low-cost, divisive and dangerous approach to education in the state.

By creating private alternatives, the state legislature has undercut traditional public schools and put them into competition with charters. The private alternatives that are funded with public funds lack the very essence of what makes public schools so valuable: their public purpose, public governance, public oversight and commitment to the common good.

Legislators are willing to support unregulated for-profit alternatives while underfunding, testing, ranking and judging the mainstream public system. Instead of enlisting educational professionals in a search for effective strategies that build teacher expertise and engage students with diverse needs, they grade and blame teachers and refuse to address core issues that put many children behind before they ever start school. They look at education as widget production, not human development, and they undermine local control.

Instead of building confidence in the hallmark of our democracy, current policies promote a narrative of failure and encourage disinvestment.

The legislature is quick to measure, blame and shame, but unwilling to ensure adequate funding for a fair system. The legislature is the steward of public funds, but it has created a system that endorses profitmaking with those public funds, and limited accountability. These policies don’t fix anything. Our elected officials have abdicated their constitutional responsibility to provide a system of public schools that works.

Public schools serve the common good, not customers. They build communities of respect and mutual obligation, not fear. Public schools unite; a dual system divides. Charters pull away resources and fray the fabric of communities rather than build an awareness of our responsibility to one another.

Education is worthy of public investment because it is a resource for the common good. When public policies push a private agenda over a public purpose, it erodes our commitment to success for all. By providing a supposed “way out” for a few, rather than ensuring a quality education for all, we abandon those who depend on the public solution. Do we really want to do that? There is plenty of evidence that the market discriminates and leaves people behind. Just look at the history of urban neighborhoods! It scares me.

We cannot abandon our children, the principles of public institutions, or our democracy. Public schools are a bulwark of commitment to the well-being of all children and our commitment to one another. Veneration of the private over the public is a mistake.

There isn’t anything more valuable or essential in our society than our public schools, which challenge, nurture and inspire all our youth. If schools fall short of these expectations, we need to fix them—together. It’s time to end a dual system of schools that creates an escape valve for a few and creates profits for private education companies. It’s time to reclaim our commitment to the common good by electing a legislature that is willing to pursue meaningful solutions to vexing problems.

We need the legislature to build a system that is cherished because it is a “public school experience at a public school cost.”

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

Read More on The Common Good
Volume 7, Issue 2, Posted 4:25 PM, 01.30.2014