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Creating a Public

By Sheila Suess Kennedy on September 13, 2013 in Civic Blog

One of the reasons many of us believe so passionately in public education is that it is–in the words of political scientist Benjamin Barber–”constitutive of a public.” In other words, in addition to teaching children English, math, science, history and other subjects, public schools are intended to create a generation of citizens.

Of course, if the sole purpose of schooling is to arm children with the skills needed to obtain employment and be knowledgable consumers–as many people evidently think–there’s no reason education need be public.

We need to recognize the profound difference between these views of schooling  as we debate various reform measures. And let’s be honest: reform is badly needed. No honest person, looking at the sad state of schools in urban and rural areas alike, can defend the status quo. But all reforms–and all reformers–are not equal.

A great fear of those of us who see schools as more than job training venues is that rather than focusing our efforts on fixing our broken public systems, we will follow those who want to privatize and abandon them. It is important to note here that there is a huge difference between charter schools–which are public schools–and voucher programs that divert public resources to support private and religious schools. (It is probably also important to note that–at least thus far–neither category has been shown to be reliably better academically than our beleaguered public schools. If there’s a magic bullet, no one has yet found it. )

What is the civic function we expect public schools to play? What does it mean to “create citizens”? Civic knowledge is certainly an important element; so is civic participation.

A colleague brought an intriguing recent study to my attention that sheds some light on the latter criterion; it was done by the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, a religiously-affiliated institution.

The researchers found that Protestant religious schools produced students who volunteered as young adults, that Catholic schools had a more modest effect on later volunteerism, and that home-schooled students and those who attended private, non-religious schools were the least likely to volunteer as adults. (Evidently, no Jewish or Muslim schools were included in the study.)

Of course, volunteerism, while highly desirable, is not equivalent to involved citizenship. One of the thorniest problems we currently face is that many  young people want to make a difference, but are repelled by activities they deem to be “political.” Rather than involve themselves in citizenship activities, they channel their contributions to their communities through nonprofits and other voluntary associations. And like philanthropy, a significant amount of such volunteer activity is religious: support for one’s church,  religious missions and the like.

The study didn’t report the nature of the volunteer activities they found. But while Protestant religious schools evidently inculcated a degree of what we might call public-spiritedness, it is telling that home-schooled and private schooled students were unlikely to participate in any volunteer activities, civic or religious, even after controlling for such things as educational attainment, parental income, religious identity and similar characteristics.

Assuming the study was sound, the results are evidence of something our common sense tells us: that the nature and focus of the school a student attends matter.

If some religious schools have figured out how to inculcate socially responsible behaviors, public schools should be able to figure out how to produce civically-responsible graduates. As we wage “reform wars” over Common Core and high-stakes testing and all the other “fixes” being proposed, we need to keep our eye on the goal: academically excellent public schools that educate engaged and knowledgable citizens.

Schools that create a public, in the best sense of that word.

This post was originally published on sheilakennedy.net on September 12th 2013 and republished here with the author’s permission.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include six books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals.