January 6, 2023

Stephen Owens: Inclusion: the key to public school’s value.

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Stephen Owens has launched a substack aimed at arguing for public schools as an effective tool to lessen human suffering. In this post, her points out that “the purpose of schooling starts with who is allowed to participate.”

To put it concisely: I believe in the American cultural and political environment the public school is best situated to offer the highest quality service for all and, most specifically, the poor. I believe this is known, in my faith tradition, as common grace.

And that, in his view, means that public schools need to be inclusive.

I believe public schools are most valuable as a tool to lessen human suffering on the poor–one of the primary, and possibly only, ends of good governance—but that is not to say that its benefits end with this group. In fact, with few exceptions, I’m convinced that public schools are a service that have shown to support all people groups in our country. Foundational to this belief is the fact that public schools are required to provide services to every single child that arrives.

Inclusion. Public schools (in their current state) are for everyone. The road to the schools I attended in the 90s is paved with hard-fought legal protections for children that the majority culture would rather not teach. Throughout American history school leaders had to be forced to educate women, immigrants, Black people, students with disabilities and undocumented students via government compulsion. Each of these groups had to wait for laws to be changed to gain the advantages that white, rich, Protestant males shared since before our country was founded. This is not ancient history. My mom was a junior in high school when disabled kids got the right to a public education (1975). Undocumented children were guaranteed the same right two years before I was born (1982).

Inclusion, at least by this definition, has required blood, sweat and tears. It would be foolish to assume that inclusion is natural. In fact, inclusion is so unnatural to the way we consider schooling that its inverse remains a feature of excellence in the public mind.

But he has a different measure and purpose in mind,

I’d go as far as to say that the true measure of a school is their support for the poor. The brutal truth of schooling in the U.S. is that parental income is strongly predictive of educational outcomes. While we like to imagine a true meritocracy, the real difference is whether your parents have enough money to provide 1) security (food and housing), 2) accountability, 3) targeted support and 4) social capital. So, any time I come across the “conventional wisdom” of the superiority of private schools it sounds like someone bragging that Georgia beat Vanderbilt in football. Duh: Kirby and…whomever is coaching Vandy… are dealing with two qualitatively different pools of players. If we’re really going to provide the measure of a school, look to the services provided to those that the Bible refers to as “the least of these.”

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