The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the common school in America dying?

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The Supreme Court’s decisions this month involving public education have stirred new debate about the future of public, secular education in this country — but such concerns are not new to advocates of publicly operated and funded public schools.

The right-wing majority on the high court ruled 6 to 3 that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from a taxpayer-funded “tuitioning” program that pays for private school tuition when no nearby public high school is available — an assault on the Establishment Clause interest in the separation of church and state. And it ruled 6 to 3 against a Washington state school board that had disciplined a former football coach for leading postgame prayers at midfield with student-athletes and others — also seen as an attack on the church/state separation guaranteed in the Constitution.

Other issues have concerned common school supporters, too, including the resegregation of schools in recent decades and, as Bruce Fuller explains in the following post, an unusual confluence of interests among right- and left-wing advocates who are interested in alternatives to traditionally operated school districts.

Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley who has done some 15 years of field work in Los Angeles, asks the question: Are common schools dying in America? The common school movement began in the 1800s, an effort to create publicly funded schools for all students — although it was a long, long time before they were integrated. It evolved into the public education system we have today.

Fuller is the author of the newly published book titled “When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles,” which tells the story of how a network of Latino and Black leaders, civil rights lawyers, ethnic nonprofits, and progressives improved public education in Los Angeles.

By Bruce Fuller

Many progressives across our fractured nation embrace the religious right on one issue: burying the ideal of common schooling.

The Supreme Court told Maine’s lawmakers this month that they cannot prohibit parents from using taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for sectarian schools. This is “discrimination against religion,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. Public funding must support private and pious interests, says the court, lurching further right. “Properly understood, the Establishment Clause,” which constitutionally separates church from state, “does not prohibit states from favoring religion,” Justice Clarence Thomas claimed.

Vital education issues this Supreme Court could decide to revisit

But judicial conservatives are not alone in cultivating pluralist values in America’s classrooms. Reformers on the political left — frustrated over plain-vanilla, at times ineffective schools — have advocated for wildly diverse forms of education over the past half-century.

Strange bedfellows indeed when advocating for uncommon schools.

Desegregation advocates, for instance, created thousands of inventive magnet schools, which to this day attract multiracial blends of children, enticed by attractive curriculums, from computer science to performing arts. It was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who first spawned charter schools with federal dollars in the 1990s, defined as a civil right moment by some on the left, offering liberation of creative educators from a homogenizing schools bureaucracy and suffocating labor rules.

In places such as Boston and Los Angeles, breakaway teachers focused on social justice have built scores of so-called pilot schools — small campuses that secede from the downtown bureaucracy. Yet, teachers retain job benefits and remain in the union. My research team finds these small and innovative campuses yield higher graduation rates, compared with regular high schools in Los Angeles.

Stiff forces spur creation of differing forms of schooling, moving way beyond the right-wing push for public funding of religious institutions. Cultural diversity and identity politics foster creation of dual-language schools where kids can learn in French or Spanish, or perhaps Armenian or Mandarin. Charter schools serve thousands of poor children in places like South Los Angeles. Then, drive over the Hollywood hills and discover White families hunkered down in their own charter campuses, as my new book on education pluralism details.

But does this mean we should trash the ideal of common schooling — that age-old tent under which all children share core knowledge, explore foundations of ethnic heritage, and befriend kids unlike our own? Does the shattering of public schooling into narrow shards reflect the “twilight of common dreams” in America, as the late activist Todd Gitlin once coined?

The notion of free and universal schooling was a radical idea in the 1840s, pressed by Horace Mann, the first schools chief of Massachusetts. He worked against the grain, as ethnically segregated schools flourished among immigrant communities: poor schools for Italian Catholics in New York City, tribal forms of education among Germans and Swedes in the Upper Midwest. Isolated Black schools in the American South.

The beauty of common schooling for Mann and his egalitarian allies was to gather children of various races and social classes under one roof — served by schools in which teachers became respected professionals and government socialized the cost of education.

The common school is to “rescue an individual, as well as reform a State,” Mann wrote in 1848, to “console and bless the poorest and most forlorn wretch upon the earth.” Just as neighbors helped raise your barn, united citizens were to rally around inclusive, village-run schools.

Common schools born in New England did not lack a moralizing edge. Mann inserted bible passages in early textbooks, preferably drawn from his own Unitarian faith. Boston blue bloods embraced the common-school model as Protestant-infused counterpoint to Catholic schools, spreading across industrializing cities. Early common schools required children to literally toe the line, tips of shoes along an etched groove in the floor, holding forth with fresh vocabulary words or moral tales. Ironic that modern-day conservatives yearn for a return to such moral messaging, now subsidized by the secular state.

Mann convinced many state leaders to fund free public schools. Equally important, he aspired for schools that hosted a common and integrating experience for all children. Set against this ideal, the contemporary retreat to separate corners, fostered by education markets and legitimated by the courts, feels all the more destructive. Is the post-modern state now dedicated to segmented tribes — split along divergent ideologies of schooling — rather than rallying behind a common good?

Some nations in Europe have taken cultural liberalism to this extreme. The Netherlands defines a shared curriculum for all students — including the study of comparative religion — then funds 36 differing forms of secular and sectarian schools, as reported by Johns Hopkins professor Ashley Berner.

In America, blowing up the common school would further isolate rich from poor, White families growing distant from communities of color. Fast-food joints, baseball stadiums and public schools are among the surviving civic places that nurture familiarity across groups, coloring the nation’s demographic pastiche on a shared canvas.

Progressives and mindful conservatives have coalesced to craft a common learning agenda for America’s children. Recall how President George W. Bush joined with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) in 2001 to push for academic standards and to hold educators accountable for better results. Their resulting No Child Left Behind suffered from federal overreach, nudged teachers to didactically spoon-feed an easily tested curriculum and ushered in the era of high-stakes standardized tests that resulted in a narrowing of the subjects students learned. But their initiative did signal the vital importance of schooling practices held in common — shared knowledge, expectations for growth, and emotional supports that all students should enjoy.

Are states really trying to overcome the harmful legacy of No Child Left Behind?

Without a doubt, the social organization of schooling — from what is taught by whom and in which language — must respond to cultural variety, to the vibrant families that inhabit our cities and diversifying suburbs. But after tracing the rise of differentiated schools in Los Angeles — charters, magnet and dual-language campuses — the specter of worsening segregation vividly surfaced.

My team discovered places like Community Magnet Charter School, visible from the Getty Art Center, cooled by a sea breeze off nearby beaches. Here pupils outperform nearly every school in the region — largely because Community Magnet offers a rigorous haven for White and Asian heritage kids. The school accepts just 3 percent of applicants each year.

Or, take the expansive array of charter schools, serving one-fifth of all students within the L.A. Unified School District. I found that many of these charters admit or “cream off” already high-achieving children early in grade cycles, relative to peers in traditional public schools, after tracking 97,000 kids over four years with colleagues at Berkeley.

13 ways charter schools shape their enrollment

Better educated parents, even those in working-class parts of L.A., select into charter schools, where they meet similarly eager families able to maneuver through this diverse market of school options. My team also uncovered former public schools that converted to charter status — such as tony Pacific Palisades High School, Christie Brinkley and Jeff Bridges among its famous alums — who raise the drawbridge to discourage applications from disadvantaged students.

Local school boards spawn diverse forms of schooling to spark inventive pedagogies and hold onto middle-class families. Classically liberal societies demand individualistic options, whether pressed from the spiritual Right or cultural Left. Nearly one-third of all students no longer attend their neighborhood school as old fashioned attendance zones fade away. This opens the opportunity to integrate children across communities, delivering on Horace Mann’s original vision.

But in reality, the isolation of poor children from their middle-class peers has worsened in our schools over the past generation. The spread of parental choice and diversifying forms of schooling have failed to advance a common experience in what children learn, or the chance of simply sitting alongside kids unlike themselves. Mann would be astonished by current levels of funding for public schools, yet disturbed by the fracturing school forms and the inability of government to narrow disparities in children’s achievement (since the early years of No Child Left Behind).

Getting education reform right

Educators have responded to demands for institutional variety, to afford parents colorful options among diverse forms of schooling. Yet, local educators rarely monitor the stratifying effects resulting from variegated organizations. Now the courts and right-wing governors aim to further balkanize society, even allocating taxpayer dollars to further distance groups from one another — through differentiated and unequal forms of schooling.

Instead, let’s return to Horace Mann’s aspiration to weave together a more perfect union. Schools, of course, should not serve up a tasteless gruel, a regimented curriculum enforced from afar. Educators must resonate with the values and knowledge held dear by local communities, balanced against the shared foundations of civil society.

Let’s tackle religious beliefs in our classrooms, set alongside humanist traditions and secular commitments. But let’s not lose track of education’s key role in exploring the shared knowledge and moral values held dear by pluralist and democratic societies, cultivated in common schools.