A couple weeks ago, my colleague Tait Jensen wrote an article about the importance of charter schools in education. I have never attended a charter school (I went through Catholic schools from first grade until my recent college graduation). I appreciated Mr. Jensen’s balanced approach, but I think conservatives berate public schools when there is actually much to be appreciated in the idea, if not the practice, of public education.
Hear me out.
Fundamentally, public education is about community. Yes, "public" implies some form of government funding, but if that comes in the form of local taxation, then the enterprise is indelibly linked to the community from whence its funding comes. I don’t think that taxes are necessarily robbery, so, in my mind, the funding of a locally-grown and staffed institution sounds rather, well, conservative.
I think the answer lies in practicing localism. One of the greatest problems facing education right now is the principle of subsidiarity: delegating power upward. Our public schools are often un-local. Teachers might have some freedom, but they are equipped with mandatory lesson plans and tests, minimizing the flexibility for different approaches within the classroom. In other words, the problem is not the idea of public schooling itself, but in its practice.
Much of Mr. Jensen’s article praises the wonderful environment cultivated in his charter school. And, as he admits, such an environment could exist at a more traditionally “public” institution. Maybe we should redesign the system so that students are more likely to receive such an education. Power would have to be removed from the remote and centralized forces which determine the needs of the publically-schooled communities. Teachers would have to be given the liberty to teach their classes in a variety of ways. Schools would need smarter, rather than more, funding. Teachers should fired for poor behavior. These are platitudes, but in a broad sense, they would have to be required, should we desire to make our public schools authentically local. Moving away from the STEM obsession wouldn’t hurt, either.
The point is, there is nothing un-conservative or un-traditional about locally-centered and locally-cultivated education. Charter schools might have a place within our system, but the deification of that choice is not conservative. It is, at best, libertarian, and, at worst, a false idol. Choice can be good, but it can also be dizzying. What is more authentic, more deeply rooted in the soil of a place and in its people is locally-centered, locally-funded education, which, done correctly, would be a blessing to those interested in preserving a love of home.