Public Schools Are Not ‘Government Schools,’ Not Yet

A favorite talking point of school privatizers and education reformers is to refer to public schools as “government schools.” When free market ideologues and politicians do this, they are primarily appealing to the libertarian tendencies of middle and upper class white evangelicals and Catholics. Right wing politicians rarely use the word “government” positively as an adjective; government spending, government waste, government overreach. To the ears of Generation X white America, “government schools” sounds an awful lot like “government cheese.” In the 1980s, the term “government cheese” stood for poor quality, generic packaging, uniformity, and the stigma that went along with being a recipient of food stamps. This is the image that devotees of economist Milton Friedman want to conjure. They want us to believe that public schools are bland, monolithic, and a means to publicly identify and ridicule poor people.

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Imagine nationwide standardized school uniforms, 100% scripted instruction, closed-circuit television cameras in every classroom, and absolutely no extra-curricular activities. That is perhaps what “government schools” would look like in the United States today. The truth is that every public school in America has its own unique characteristics, continues to operate with a surprisingly high level of autonomy, and is distinctly connected to its local community. If this country had “government schools” there would be no such thing as school pride, school mascots, or class reunions. There certainly would be no need for elected school boards. There would be no Parent Teacher Association and no parent teacher conferences. Students would be nothing more than products. Public schools are not factories that push out generations of identical young adults. Public schools are localized communities that incubate our society’s progress toward justice and tolerance.

The truth is that every public school in America has its own unique characteristics, continues to operate with a surprisingly high level of autonomy, and is distinctly connected to its local community.

It comes as no surprise that the desire to dismantle public schools falls near on the political spectrum to the bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance coming out of the Trump white house. The irony of public schools promoting a progressive society is that progressives do not control our national government. And in deeply red states like Oklahoma, they do not control state government either. So when the political right calls public schools “government schools,” they are referring to the government that, for the most part, they control.

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The irony is that some of the same politicians that cry “school choice” year after year are the same politicians who sponsor legislation that results in more government control of public schools. One of the favorite pastimes of Republican lawmakers is to mandate patriotism in public schools. The presence of compulsory pledges and posted national mottos reading “In God We Trust” inside public school classrooms is a decisive step toward rightfully earning the title “government schools.” After the failed policies of “No Child Left Behind,” it is clear that standardized testing is not a way to lift student performance but to homogenize our education system in order make it more susceptible to criticism.

The irony is that some of the same politicians that cry “school choice” year after year are the same politicians who sponsor legislation that results in more government control of public schools.

The motivations behind legislators playing it both ways in regard to education policy vary. At best, some policymakers are simply ignorant of the contradiction between labeling a neighborhood school a “government school” and promoting heavy-handed regulation that they like to call “accountability.” At worst, the “government school” mantra is a well calculated self-fulfilling prophecy. Here is how it works.

Step 1: Refer to public schools as “government schools.” Repeat often.

Step 2: Heavily regulate public schools at both the state and national level. Standardize everything.

Step 3: Keep calling public schools “government schools” until it becomes true.

Step 4: Defund and privatize public education.

Step 5: Leave a few highly scrutinized “government schools” open in urban centers for poor students of color to attend.

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