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Sam Chaltain Headshot

Privatization or Public-ization?

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There's a lot of talk these days about the growing support for a privatization of America's public school system, and what it augurs over the long haul.

Typically, that's as far as the conversation gets before breaking down into myopic talking points that force people to pledge allegiance to one of two camps: these days you're either pro or anti-charter, pro or anti-union, or -- the most insulting -- pro-adult or pro-kid.

I can't predict how it's all going to play out, but I can see that these binary frames are misleading distractions that work great as sound bites, and prevent us from addressing the primary challenges we face as a nation. I can also suggest an illustrative tale worth paying attention to, on from the other side of the globe where the exact opposite push -- a public-ization of the school system -- is taking place.

The place is Australia, where I recently spent a week as the guest of an organization called the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), and where, as FYA Research Director Lucas Walsh put it, "the promise of public education as a democratic project remains unfulfilled." As Walsh explained, "Across schooling in Australia students are increasingly segregated on the basis of educational achievement and family economic and cultural assets. Governance and funding are inconsistent, fragmented, and inhibited by policy scope that is limited through short-term political convenience."

Sound familiar? Yet Australia's school system differs mightily from ours in one major way: nearly one-third of its students attend private schools, which, remarkably, are eligible for public dollars.

The result of this system? A lionization of the individual right to choose which school your child will attend - alongside a deepening societal chasm between the haves and the have-nots; a rate of investment in private schools that is three times that of public schools -- alongside a disproportionate number of low-income and Aboriginal children who remain in the underfunded public option; and an ongoing celebration of the Australian notion that everyone deserves a fair go -- alongside the gradual development of a two-tiered, publicly funded education system that a growing number of educators and families refer to as "de facto apartheid."

In response, FYA and others are trying to engender a renewed commitment to the public-ization of Australia's school system. New funding formulas are being proposed, new efforts are underway to make financial and school performance data more transparent and readily available, and new campaigns are being launched to re-prioritize the unique role public schools play in a democratic society. As FYA Board member Ellen Koshland puts it, "More than ever, we need a whole of community commitment to education if Australia is going to lift its game internationally and prepare all of its wonderful young people for success in an uncertain future. The structure of government can either aid this or continue to inhibit it."

It was with these ideas and challenges in mind that I returned from Australia to the States, and re-entered the current climate in which we celebrate the limitless promise of charter schools -- schools that are released from bureaucratic regulation in order to experiment and innovate to find new ways to educate children -- while ignoring the limited opportunities for innovation that exist throughout the rest of the public education system. And I re-entered a climate where the current push is to use federal policy to pit schools and states against one another in a competitive contest that identifies a small number of winners, instead of mandating that all federal funding come with a requirement that any public school (charter or otherwise) share its most promising practices with an eye towards improving the entire system.

In this atmosphere, it's almost heresy to suggest that there's anything wrong with the three C's; charters, choice and competition. But before you categorize me too quickly (Is he a reformer or a status-quo-er? Is he for or against choice?), let me be clear: I love the fact that the charter movement has created new space for innovation, experimentation, and increased choices for low-income families. I love the fact that the Obama administration has stated unequivocally that a high quality public education is a civil right. And I love the fact that we now pay attention to the achievement gap between groups of students that was previously hidden in state and district reports.

I also worry about our refusal to ask some tough questions: How do we create space for innovation without unintentionally creating a two-tiered system of schooling that may serve more children, but still leaves too many behind? If authority becomes more and more centralized - via mayoral control, private management of schools, and the eradication of school boards, how will we ensure that families and community members are engaged, valued, and involved in meaningful decision-making? And what do we need to do now, so we don't find ourselves, a generation out, wondering how to reclaim the public purpose of public education?

Look to our friends Down Under to get a sense of what might happen if those questions remain unasked.