The Public Humanist

Thinking with Arendt about Massachusetts Ballot Question 2: Revaluing the “Public” in the Fight for Public Education

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This November, Massachusetts voters will be deciding whether to lift the cap on charter schools in the Commonwealth, in a referendum that would hasten the diversion of public funds away from public schools and into the swelling charter system, advancing its privatizing agenda. Significantly, the pro-charter campaign insistently brands itself with the term “public,” with taglines like “more funding for public education” and “charter schools are public schools.” This word “public” deserves our attention, not only because it is driving the ballot question debates, but also because it has implications for how we theoretically conceive our lives as citizens.

The pro-charter campaign is clearly seeking to capitalize on the historico-cultural consensus that public education is a cornerstone of democracy, worthy of taxpayers’ investment. But unlike local public schools, charter schools selectively serve certain demographics, have no accountability to local democratically-elected officials or the communities out of which they operate, and are often managed by private enterprises. While charter schools receive public funding, they behave like private corporations and are politically advanced by big-money private investors.

And yet, one pro-charter ad features the word “public” five times in its 30-second spot. It concludes with an assertion that strategically entwines the civic virtue of public education with the capitalist imperative toward individual consumer choice:  “every parent should be able to choose the public school that’s best for their child.”

Now, as a school committee member and an advocate for public schools, and with the vote imminently on the horizon, I am inclined to talk to voters about the reality that charters simply do not deliver on this promise to provide the “best” education. (Have you gotten a chance to watch John Oliver’s comical but crushing exposé?) At the national level, charter schools perform approximately the same as public schools according to standardized testing markers, and they achieve these scores through measures including overemphasis on test preparation, punitive disciplinary actions and high suspension rates that remove lower performing students and disproportionately penalize children of color, and systemic under-enrollment of English-language-learners and students with disabilities and high needs.

But, of course, there does exist a contingency of families whose children are happy and thriving in their charter schools and who would understandably defend their support of charters. With those families, I might want to have the harder conversation about whether it is right for citizens to privilege what is best for their own individual children, even if it comes at the cost of the greater public good. This question represents a foundational dilemma in policymaking and a basic concept I introduce in my intro-level public policy classes:  democratic societies must work to balance the protection of the rights of individual citizens against the promotion of the public good.

However, the charter school question has caused me to revisit the way this framework pits “the public” against “rights.” Must we insist that individual rights exist in counterpoint to the public? Don’t we also have a right to a full-bodied public?

Political theorist Hannah Arendt can help us here.[1] Arendt has described “an almost universal consensus…that our rights are private and our obligations are public.” However, Arendt suggests, we need to start asserting not only our private rights as individuals, but also our “public rights as citizens.” That is, by virtue of our status as members of a political body, we have rights to public life. And by rights to the “public,” I mean something more than just access to public resources. Rather, I mean also rights to those intangible benefits afforded by a robust public sphere.

These benefits might be difficult for us to even imagine at this point. The extra layer or texture of existence afforded by public belonging—that which Arendt calls “a kind of second life in addition” to the private life, with its capacity to offer individuals “public happiness”—is a concept that is diminished if not absent from our political discourse. Indeed, the very fact that public education is under such siege demonstrates the frailty of our conceptualization and valuation of the public sphere. We might need to remind ourselves that included among these benefits is the opportunity to participate in the ongoing project of making a meaningful democratic collective, and to grow via the intellectual, spiritual, social and ethical exercises which that project requires.

In the fight over public education, not only is our educational system at stake, but so is our fundamental idea of the public. Even if (in the hypothetical) privately-managed charter schools could actually provide better educations, the dismantling of our public education system means the dismantling of one of the last few strongholds of the public sphere. And that should matter to everyone.

The charter campaign assumes that we as voters value “public” schools in name only, or perhaps hopes we will be deceived by the repetition of the term. As we consider the serious repercussions the charter movement has on students in Massachusetts and beyond, we need to also consider the broader democratic consequences should we continue to concede to private interests our right to define the public.

[1] Hannah Arendt. “Public Rights and Private Interests: In Response to Charles Frankel” in Small Comforts for Hard Times: Humanists on Public Policy. Columbia UP: NY, 1977. (103-109).

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