March 23, 2017
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A (Modest) Case for Public Schools

By Joseph Ellis

The development of the American public school system is one of our country’s great achievements, especially in what was one time the largely rural American South. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, the one-room school house model of education was scrapped for a more modern take on education. Schools were consolidated and buses shipped students from remote parts of a county to a central location, where teachers and administrators — some of the only people in such communities with college degrees — awaited them.

For rural and suburban communities, after the church, the local high school was the closest thing to a source of community that folks had. A great deal of pride was taken in these schools, and generations of families would attend them. Extra-curricular activities were cheap, if not entirely free, and high school football, or what came to be known as Friday Night Lights, became a core part of Southern identity.

For at least two generations in the South, this was the experience of almost every boy and girl. Private schooling was very rare, and Catholic schooling, which played a large role in the Midwest and Northeast, was virtually non-existent. You went to school with people in your community. For example, it was not uncommon for the factory owner’s son to attend the same school as the factory worker’s son. This concept — of going to school with the very people you live beside and worship with — became known as the “neighborhood school” model as school desegregation and school busing became incredibly hot-button political issues in the 1960s and 1970s.

And it was with school desegregation and busing that we see in the South and elsewhere (most famously Boston) a serious fracturing of support for the public school model. Small, parochial private schools which had never existed before popped up to provide an alternative for those uncomfortable with desegregation. And as political resistance grew to busing in the 1990s and 2000s, school choice — as it is now known — became an attractive outlet for parents wanting to take control of their child’s educational future. There are countless examples of charter schools from this era thriving.

From a cursory glance at this history, many critics of school choice allege it is a scheme to segregate education on racial and economic lines. Unlike these critics, I think both traditional public education, with its emphasis on neighborhood zones, and choice, which allow students to voluntarily leave a less desirable school, stand to resegregate school systems, each in their own unique way. In neither case does this resegregation stem from malice, per se.

But I am worried the proliferation of school choice in particular will lead to a further fracturing and balkanization of our communities, particularly the more rural communities with which I identify. A long-term movement toward school choice serves to cut our society into smaller and smaller segments along educational, economic, religious, racial, and potentially ideological lines, among others. Robert Putnam, in his very good book Our Kids, alludes to this point, as he recognizes the societal costs that arise when schools no longer mirror the communities writ large, but divide such communities along very narrow economic (or racial) subsets.

The public school where my wife works is a largely rural school, squeezed in between corn fields and chicken farms in North Carolina’s piedmont. What it lacks in racial variety, it makes up for it in economic diversity, and the school itself is a fairly good snapshot of the community in which it is located. This past school year, it was awarded a grade of “A” on the state report cards, a great achievement for a school where close to 25-percent of students are on free-or-reduced lunch. In speaking with some folks at the school following the announcement, I was reminded of something which makes this school unique to other schools in the district: roughly 20 of their 60 faculty and staff graduated from the school.

There is an immense amount of school pride, community pride and commitment to seeing the school succeed. The school is also the cornerstone for which so much of the social life of the community derives, for young and old, rich and poor. The school, which opened in 1960, is now witnessing its third generation of students pour through the front doors. In short, it would be hard to comprehend living here without the school and the role it plays in our day to day lives.

The social media and cable channel news debates take for granted the nuance and breadth of the public school system as we know it today, particularly rural, Southern districts. School choice itself has become something of a one-size-fits-all fix, without an accompanying agenda to specifically identify the problems facing public schools and then solving those problems. School choice — the buzzword it has become — has convinced a great many people that by simply expanding choice it produces optimum outcomes, and furthermore, that traditional public education, by comparison, is woefully inferior.

But, just like traditional public schools, charter schools can and do fail. In Charlotte, NC, about 45 minutes from where I live, three charters opened and closed during the school year in 2015. While I don’t want to start a tit-for-tat of school choice/ public school horror stories, as a conservative, some of the instability of the current school choice model is concerning to me, at least from my vantage point in rural North Carolina.

There is no reason, of course, that fifty years from now, some charter school won’t play the same important role for a community that my wife’s high school plays now. But to develop the deep community attachments takes time, and does not happen overnight. It takes generations to support it, and its successes cannot be completely replicated by large financial contributions, or an innovative curriculum alone. Where it has already proven that school choice has been beneficial to students and their families, by all means, continue down that path. But I am also aware of what the traditional public school has meant to the very communities I have lived most of my life. And like the church or Little League baseball, it is an institution we would do well to support. At least in the near-term, and perhaps, beyond.

- Originally appeared at

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