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Guest: Why public education matters in America

BY ANANYA ROY - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 26, 2010 7:30 AM

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March 4, 2010, was a national day of action to defend public education. In California, it was a historic day as students and teachers from all sectors of public education, K-12 to state universities, united to stand up for public education. It marked the transformation of fear into a national network of student and faculty action that seeks to change the ways in which America thinks about public education.

The struggle for public education is not solely a California problem. Echoes of it are everywhere, from Iowa to Maryland. Much more is at stake in public education than the capacity of universities and schools. Also at stake are the resilience of our economy and the vitality of our democracy.

Public education democratizes opportunity in America, and this is why it matters.

The “financial Katrina” that recently swept through the country only compounded the country’s economic inequality. Wall Street was bailed out, while Main Street was left to fend for itself. My colleague, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, has rightly called this “socialized capitalism,” one in which the profits are enjoyed by the wealthy few, but the losses are borne by the rest. Public education is one of the most important ways in which such disadvantage can be mitigated. It democratizes opportunity in a socioeconomic order that can otherwise concentrate advantage at the very top.

The crisis of public education threatens the democratization of opportunity in America. The betrayal of opportunity is a generalized condition of vulnerability and exclusion, one facing a wide swath of Americans. The anchors of what once defined the American middle class: homeownership, stable jobs, and public education, are quickly eroding. Opportunity has become the privilege of the 1 percent, rather than a widely held right.

The disinvestment in public education is not a story of resource poverty, it is a story of priorities. California spends more on its prisons than on its schools and universities. Our leaders have chosen to adopt a foreign policy of occupation instead of a domestic policy of investment in human capital.

If we care about nothing else other than the global competitiveness of the American economy, then we would be wise to stop the defunding of public education.

Equally important is the future of American democracy. Here it is worth emphasizing the word “education” in the phrase “public education.” Public education already makes the best of scarce resources, doing more with less. But education cannot be delivered through models of discount chain stores or fast-food franchises. Education cannot be nurtured through virtual learning portals.

Education, as a recent statement by concerned University of Iowa faculty, eloquently argues is about educating “citizens who live in a democracy.” The faculty note that the founders of the University of Iowa recognized the “virtues of a liberal-arts education because of the diversity of perspective it offers to students, which allows them to avoid becoming single-minded in their orientations and outlooks as citizens.”

In stripping public universities of their educational function and reducing them to assembly lines engaged in the low-cost processing of students, we run the risk of destroying the foundations of an educated American polity. It would be a shame if “education” were to be available only in private schools and elite private universities, the domain of the elite rather than the rowdy and lively terrain of democratic action for and by all. No democracy can thrive without the democratization of opportunity. Public education is this very democratization of opportunity.

Ananya Roy is professor of city and regional planning at the University of California-Berkeley.


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