The Commonwealth

I went to graduate school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and taught at a college in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That makes me two-for-four when it comes to connecting with states that are officially designated as a Commonwealth (the other two being Kentucky and Pennsylvania).

The other 46 states are just that — states.

What brings this to mind is graduation season, a time of closure that ought to be a joyous celebration of life’s next adventure for the millions of young people who have earned diplomas from high school or college.

“Roots and anchors” was my theme when I was the commencement speaker at Richard Stockton State College (NJ) in 1991, where nearly all graduates were the first in their families to earn degrees. I encouraged them to take chances because, I said, they knew who they were (“Roots”) but weren’t constrained by debt (“Anchors”).

Couldn't say this today...

Couldn’t say that today, not when more than half of all college graduates leave with significant debt and, often, dim job prospects.

A trend that began during the “me, me, me” years of the Reagan Administration continues to accelerate: states are withdrawing their support for higher education; tuition and fees are going up; and student aid has gone from grants to loans.

Today only 7% of the funding for Ohio State University, the state’s flagship public institution, comes from the State of Ohio. Once “state-supported,” it is now “state-situated,” as the cynics say.

The cost of a year at an elite institution is approaching $60,000. A year of Community College — if you can find room — is now in five figures, and no one gets through Community College in just two years anymore, because so many classes have been eliminated. (My colleague John Tulenko has a piece about community colleges coming up on PBS NewsHour later this month.)

More students are borrowing, and they are borrowing more. The average borrower owes $23,000, and 10% of borrowers owe more than $54,000.

After World War II, America invested in higher education because we saw an educated populace as a common good. The GI Bill declared, in so many words, “If you have the determination and the brains, the country will pay for your college education.” It wasn’t entirely charitable: we didn’t want millions of veterans on the streets, preferring instead to have millions of working, tax-paying citizens. (Higher education largely opposed this, by the way.)

From that policy decision came our great middle class. Pell Grants to low income students opened the door even wider, but that door is also closing. A Pell Grant once paid almost half the cost of attending a state institution; today, less than 25%.

All of this makes me nostalgic for a Commonwealth and all the term implies: a public purpose, a sense of polity, an understanding of the importance of community, a shared belief in institutions, and the conviction that government is essential.

A significant portion of the voting population seems to see ‘government’ as the enemy, and those on the right talk about ‘government schools’ as a root cause of our national problems. The implication is clear: our ‘government’ is not theirs and does not represent them.

The trend toward the privatization of just about everything that moves is deeply disturbing to me. Because of my work, I see it most clearly in public education: profit-seeking charter schools, virtual schools, and voucher campaigns that undercut public education.

We once believed in national service and national sacrifice, but then George W. Bush took us into two wars without asking us to give up any comforts or pay higher taxes. In fact, he urged us to keep shopping. We no longer have a draft or a citizen military — the latter has also been privatized. We were told that we could have it all, without much regard for the other guy or the larger community. Now we know that we cannot.

It’s also true that public education has often been its own worst enemy, with adults protecting other adults while putting children, youth and learning on the back burners.

How do we refocus on the common good? Is that even possible in a time of scarcity, or does a sour economy make ‘every man for himself’ inevitable?

There’s evidence that our young people are ready to unite around a call for a Commonwealth, whether it’s the enthusiasm for Teach for America and other helping programs or the growth of community gardens, community schools, and project-based learning. We yearn to be part of community, to feel the satisfaction of being involved in meaningful actions that help others.

Unfortunately, many of our leaders tap into and inflame our lesser angels of selfishness, reckless individuality and ‘us versus them.’

Who will ask more of us — and trust that we will respond?

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2 thoughts on “The Commonwealth

  1. A terrific piece that points out a troubling direction that is accelerating in many places. When John points out the profitization pieces that are undermining public education it should deeply disturb everyone.

    The advocates for these entities are quite hypocritical, in my opinion, they want more accountability from public ed, yet none from “digital” schools and charters. They rail against the overpaid and bloated “government” schools, yet the CEO of K12 pulls down millions.

    The idea of the common good has been lost. The belief is that hard work will get you ahead, just work harder. This is becoming fractured and broken. Every step taken to weaken public education hurts it further.


  2. An excellent post. One of the things forgotten by those who espouse a “market solution” for public education is that public programs, in general, have been set up to solve problems that do not have a “market solution.” Take crime. What is the private, business-friendly solution to crime? Bigger guns? Your own police force? None of these would solve the problem we want solved, which is a safer community. For that we need a public program, one that involves changing the behavior of our neighbors, not just ourselves. So, we have a public police force. The point of a public program is to share the responsibility for the solution, and the cost of this, among the entire community. That sharing is the opposite of the competition so dear to the hearts of the private types.
    In public education, it is quite true that we could change to a private school system and most of our own kids would get a good education, but that would mean that a whole lot of kids would still be going to poor schools because that was all they could afford. Those kids, then, would grow up to be worse workers and worse citizens and end up causing us much more in the long run. What we want is a more educated society, not just that our own kids are educated. That’s why we have public education. There is no private solution to the problem of a more educated community..
    You know, we don’t even use the right terms to define these problems. We don’t have departments of “public education,” just of “education.” But we don’t have an “education” problem; we actually do that pretty well, as our private schools attest. We have a problem in how to set up and run a good “public education” system. As you say, it’s the government component that is missing in this discussion, not the educational element. We probably rely too much on educators (like me) for advice on these issues. We need to shift the focus to the reform of our government policies, not the reform of the schools. Then we might make some progress in public education.

    Peter Dodington


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