Yet another person reminded folks in a conversation in which I participated recently that we can’t give up on public schools because, for many children, that’s the only place where they can escape their horrible families and find a warm place to sit in the winter, square meals during the school year, or a kind and inspiring adult to mentor them. And of course every time there’s a school closing for whatever reason, one of the first things people wonder is where the working parents are supposed to put their children now.
I support public schools. I think a country has an obligation to provide schooling, through public funds, that is available to all the young people living in the country. I shake my head over what this schooling looks like currently, but I do support the idea and wish to improve it. I also support the idea of helping people in need, especially children, and funding public daycare for all minor children.
That said, I can’t help but wonder if we have been expecting schools to do too much, or the wrong sorts of things, and if it might be better to create some other institution to do some of the things that we currently expect schools to do. What could we create that’s better than schools, for example, to shelter the children who need shelter, to feed the kids who need food, to comfort the kids who need kindness, to protect the kids who need protection? Needy children need help, absolutely. And poor parents need safe and affordable places to put their children while they’re at work. But is it appropriate or efficient to use schools in place of a decent social welfare program? Or, if using the existing institution does seem to be the most efficient thing to do, how can we use the schools to do those things but without also harming children by making them “earn” those privileges (if shelter and food and kindness can be considered privileges) by sitting still all day and getting good grades and missing no more than ten school days per year?
I believe we have to decide what the purpose of school is (shelter? daycare? meal service? prom venue? job training? college preparation? good-grade production? future leader inspiration? counseling service? democracy builder? athletic club? clique incubator?) before we can even begin to assess how well it’s working, much less improve it.