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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Public schools have always been political in nature

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook

This is a first-grade classroom at Branch Brook Elementary School in Smithtown at the end of the day Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Forget the complaints you may hear of a "politicized" education debate. Public schooling has always been highly political in the best and worst senses of the word.

Today in New York, the commotion over education often shows up as a matter of teacher unions facing their detractors, or of a Regent disagreeing with the governor over testing and evaluations.

Much more goes on.

State business groups have been helping to defend Common Core standards from popular attacks.

Non-profits funded by wealthy patrons call forth "reform" and push charter schools.

School boards jostle for tax funds.

Federal officials prod states over performance. States pressure school districts. Districts push back.

Corporations peddle testing and evaluation products. Fiefdoms of different kinds are at stake.

But it may be a good time to brush all that aside and ask the fundamental question of how American public schools developed in the first place.

The answer might surprise even some of those involved.

In an 1810 letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish-born military leader who served during the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson said "no republic can maintain its strength" without "general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom."

Consider how forcefully political -- almost subversive -- it sounds even now to discuss the public learning to judge the state of its freedoms (allowing for Jefferson's contemporary gender bias).

Today leaders talk of schools in terms of the nation's position in the global economy, of equalizing opportunity, of fulfilling career and personal goals, and of meeting a need for a skilled workforce.

As they do, Jefferson's stated goal of an informed, active citizenry -- empowered to question authority and assure popular rule -- gets buried, or, if you're an optimist, taken for granted.

Traces of concern for self-rule can be heard, here and there, in the prevailing rhetoric.

At the outset of his recent report on "chronic failing schools," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called education "the cornerstone of our democracy," then hailed it as a path to "increased social and economic opportunity."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked about a need for critical thinking, versus "teaching to the test."

The "Stop Common Core New York" group assails "nationwide controls over educational issues" and says schools "should remain at the local level."

When charter schools closed last week to bring students and teachers to a rally in Albany, Jeremiah Kittredge of Families for Excellent Schools called it a "civic field trip."

All these statements express a political value.

Thirty years ago, the late essayist Walter Karp seemed to anticipate the shape of today's political schools debate -- in starker and bleaker terms than we now may be accustomed to hearing.

"The public schools we have today are what the powerful and the considerable have made of them," he wrote.

"They will not be redeemed by trifling reforms. Merit pay, a longer school year, more homework, special schools for 'the gifted,' and more standardized tests will not even begin to turn our public schools into nurseries of informed, active and questioning citizens."

Only ordinary citizens and not society's powerful, he said, could make that happen -- a point now worth considering.


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