The Value(s) of Public Schools

“The school system prepares your child for success.  Honestly, if your child listens, it’s amazing. The teachers–it’s unreal.”  That wise comment came from the mouth of one John Aldridge. He had fallen off his lobster boat well out in the Atlantic Ocean off the tip of Long Island, New York, at about 2 AM one summer morning.  He survived for 19 hours, an ordeal which included dive bomb attacks by hungry seagulls and other seabirds, as well as a visit from an occasional shark.  The boat was on autopilot, and his mates were asleep, alarms set for 6 AM, which guaranteed that no one would even know he was missing for at least four hours!

The story of John’s survival, which includes the remarkable reaction of his best friend and shipmate, Anthony Sosinski, can be heard on “Here’s The Thing,” a podcast hosted by Alec Baldwin.  The story is called, appropriately, “A Speck in the Sea,” and John and Anthony are great storytellers.

John was wearing only a T-shirt, shorts, and fishing books when he went into the sea. The boots filled with water and were making it difficult for him to float, but rather than kicking them off, he carefully took them off his feet, brought them to the surface, emptied them, turned them over, and put them under his arms, turning them into flotation devices.  He thought quickly, remained positive, and stayed alive…

Toward the end of the podcast, Baldwin mentions the value of living in a strong community (Montauk), and John immediately and tellingly goes right to the role of the schools, with a powerful and entirely unsolicited endorsement. 

I found that deeply moving; Baldwin mentions ‘community,’ and John says ‘schools.’

The connection shouldn’t be overlooked, because strong public schools are foundational. It’s a two-way street, of course.  When most of a community supports public education—even though it’s likely that only 25-30% of households have school-age children–good things happen.

In many thousands of cities and towns in the US, Community and School are officially joined in an enterprise known, naturally, as a Community School.  These intentionally bring together the best of both, and today close to 10,000 Community Schools are in operation.  Since the US has not quite 95,000 public schools, that’s an impressive number. By contrast, Charter Schools—which receive much more publicity–number only about 7,000.  I’ve been a big fan of Community Schools since my own children went to public school in Washington, DC.  They attended a public dual language school, but there was an early Community School not too far away, a place where parents were welcome and where additional services were available, and not just for children.  

I was reminded of this while reading an early draft of a book about Community Schools by my friend and former colleague Marty Blank and three other authors.  Apparently many people confuse the two approaches to educating students, which could not be more different.  Some Charter Schools have admission tests and turn away students with disabilities; moreover, quite a few Charter Schools are profit-seeking businesses. The draft includes this passage: “Community schools supporters tend to be wary of charter schools for several reasons: Charters are privately run and are often allowed to operate outside public oversight systems. When students attend charters, that reduces the level of public resources available to district public school systems. Moreover, very wealthy donors, including a handful of billionaires, have handsomely supported charter schools as part of an effort to weaken teachers unions and privatize public education. Charters are part of a broader “school choice” movement that includes vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for families of students attending private and religious schools.”

Many in the GOP want to pit parents against teachers and schools, but in the best cities, towns, and schools, educating children is a shared enterprise, with the common goal of ‘Helping Grow American Citizens.’ 

I’ve written about this before; here’s an excerpt:  Because the purpose of school is to Help Grow American Citizens, it’s worth unpacking that phrase. “Help” conveys an essential point: schooling is a cooperative endeavor with parents and educators working in the best interests of children. 

Because schooling is a movie, not a snapshot, “Grow” suggests that School Boards should actively discourage high-stakes testing.  Those exams reveal how students did on that test on that particular day–and perhaps not much more.   Those tests (asking “How Smart Are You?”) are supported by those who want to sort and classify children. However, parents and competent teachers recognize that every child has talent and therefore ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

What does it mean to be “American” today? Is it flag-waving, flag-burning, or somewhere in the middle?  That’s an important, if difficult, conversation to have.  

The final word of the phrase, “Citizen,” also cries out for public conversation.  Just what do we want all children to be able to do when they grow up?  If we want adults to work well with others, then students ought to be working together in school on projects and other ‘cooperative learning’ endeavors.  If we want adults to be comfortable speaking in public, then children ought to be doing that in school. If we want adults to be able to make sound decisions, then students ought to be deeply involved in determining their course of study.  

 Let’s close where we began: “The school system prepares your child for success.  Honestly, if your child listens, it’s amazing. The teachers–it’s unreal.”   To which I say, Amen…..

With public education under bitter and unrelenting attack from right wing zealots, now’s the perfect time for those who believe in public schools and in the value of communities to step up and support schools and leaders who back them.

6 thoughts on “The Value(s) of Public Schools

  1. As usual, I agree with you regarding important elements of education for effective and responsible democratic citizenship. Students need to be taught civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and acquire the disposition to contribute to our civic culture. Both the We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution and the Project Citizen programs have been shown by the studies conducted by the Civic Education Research Lab at Georgetown University to help accomplish the central mission of the public schools—education for democracy.


  2. So if a child does not listen to a teacher, regardless of what the teacher says or does, what then? What about the teachers who put down some kids? What about teachers who have favorites? what about teachers and schools who are factories of failure?

    There are countless examples of this, which have led millions of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Native American families to select charter public schools. Of course some charters are not healthy places for youngsters, as is true for some district schools?

    Why do you consistently ignore failures of district public schools – which have led millions of Black, Hispanic, Asian American and indigenous families to seek out these schools?

    Why do you ignore (as Marty Blank ignored) the wonderful examples of charters that are community schools? In fact, the first charter to open in the US was and is a “community school – sharing space with a neighborhood recreation center in St Paul. There are fantastic examples of charter/community schools – some of them described along with fantastic district community schools in this publication.

    Also – have you reviewed research put out by high school and college students noting that district public schools in Minnesota are far more likely to break the state law – and to lie to families about Mn’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options law? “While 72.5% of charter public schools are up to date (on the information they are required to provide on their websites about PSEO, only 33.35 of districts are up to date.” By withholding required information, by giving students factually inaccurate information, these schools are withholding information from students that could save families millions of dollars.

    Does that concern you?

    Joe Nathan – parent of 3 graduates of St. Paul Public Schools, grandparent of 5 St. Paul Public School graduates


  3. John, you quote this “Charters are part of a broader “school choice” movement that includes vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for families of students attending private and religious schools.” A huge over-simplication.

    There are a variety of forms of school choice – such as Montauk – which is a 90% white enclave with an average family income of $102,000.
    People choosing to live there represent folks who in many cases don’t want their children to go to school with “those kids” (ie low income people of color). They can afford to live in a place like Montauk. Their choice is government subsidized because they can deduct property taxes from their income. This is one of the worst unfair forms of school choice. Are you in favor of “public schools” where the admission test for many families is the ability to pay very high property taxes?

    Magnets are another form of school choice – in many cases they use admissions tests to screen out kids who don’t perform well on the kids of standardized tests you regularly criticize. Magnet schools of America says about 25% of magnets use admissions tests.

    Where’s your criticism of magnet schools that screen out kids (including kids with disabilities) who can’t score well on a standardized test?

    Personally I detest public schools that use admissions tests – whether district or charter (and to the best of my knowledge, state laws in all but one state prohibit use of tests for charter school admissions). I worked with the late US Senator Paul Wellstone to change public magnet policy on this. As you know, I also helped write charter laws in many states that explicitly prohibit use of standardized tests or other screening devices.

    So where’s your criticism of magnet schools that use admissions tests? And what if anything other than writing about this are you doing to change things?


    • Joe, your beef is with Marty Blank and his co-authors, and I have urged Marty to respond. My understanding of Montauk is that it’s a barbell-shaped income distribution, with a fair share of working class people like John and Anthony. That it’s largely white is not material, in my view, unless there’s evidence of intentional acts to restrict residency and home ownership.


      • Thanks for your note. Yes, Marty and I have corresponded.
        While agreeing that some charters are lousy, the chartering idea has provided wonderful new opportunities for educators as well as families. Some of the finest charters in the country are founded/led by educators deeply frustrated by bureaucracy of traditional systems.

        Also, you wrote, “Apparently many people confuse the two approaches to educating students, which could not be more different. ” Some of the finest charters are community schools (including the first to open in the country City Academy is a very low income section of St Paul, started by a former district public school teacher.) I think there are both similarities and differences between the two ideas of chartering and community schools. Both recognize the existing approach does not serve many students well.

        Re Montauk – historically there were active efforts to keep African-Americans restricted to a few places on Long Island. In terms of income, as of 2019, 2.5% of the 3,000+ people are below the poverty line.


  4. I covered Philadelphia public schools for the late Philadelphia Bulletink at the time of the Great Society with Mark Shedd, superintendent of schools and Richardson Dilworth, former Mayor of Philadelphia and President of the Board of Edication. Great expectations were held and great expectations were disappointed. To me the banner winners were the early childhood programs — Headstart,Get Set – and the culture they spawned. Many of the other programs failed their promise. Money was spent and wasted in a what seemed a scattershot effort to find a solution to low test scores and poor classroom performance. Fifty years later and we’re still struggling, now on top of a dystopian culture. John


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