Good Schools, Good Citizens

Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society

Edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti. Yale University Press, 358 pages, $35.00

The contentious debate over whether public funds should support private schools revolves around a central paradox: Most Americans believe that private schools do a somewhat better job of promoting academic achievement than public schools, but most Americans nevertheless like the idea of public education, as a means of improving democracy, social cohesion, and national unity.

With the U.S. Supreme Court expected to rule later this year on the constitutionality of a program in Cleveland, Ohio, that uses vouchers to make government funds available to private-school students, and with the Bush administration proposing tuition tax credits in its new budget, advocates of "privatizing" education are now turning their attention to the first principle of how education can and should serve democracy.

Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, professors at New York University who support voucher programs, have produced an edited volume of essays, Making Good Citizens, that challenges the conventional view that public education is vital to the nation's civic health. The collection includes an impressive array of authors, not all of whom are explicit advocates of private-school choice, but whose essays, taken as a whole, make an audacious three-part argument that public support for private schools will strengthen democracy in America. The argument's components are that (1) public schools do not produce the populace of critical thinkers that a democracy requires; (2) public education no longer does a good job of assimilating diverse students; and (3) private schools do a better job than public schools of promoting the vibrant civil society that is so important to democracy's success.

Americans widely agree that a good education system is essential to democracy, in order to promote intelligent citizens who can govern themselves. As Ravitch puts it: "In a democracy, where government is based on self-rule, every person is a ruler, and all need the education that rulers should have." In addition, according to an essay by Norman Nie and D. Sunshine Hillygus, high educational achievement -- particularly high verbal ability on the SAT -- promotes an array of desirable behaviors, which are reflected in "political participation, voting turnout, political persuasion, and civil voluntarism." Public schools have failed to raise achievement, Viteritti argues; and in particular, they have perpetuated an achievement gap between races that effectively denies people of color "the full benefits of democratic citizenship."

Several essays in the volume contend that the public schools are failing to teach democratic values and are not helping immigrant students weave their way into the American social fabric. Whereas in the past, Nathan Glazer writes, "the straightforward pursuit of assimilation -- 'Americanization,' as it was then called -- evoked almost no resistance from immigrant parents," today, "the kind of social consensus that allowed the common school to thrive no longer exists." Instead, say Ravitch and Viteritti, public schools encourage "students to identify with their race or their ethnic or cultural origins rather than with the overarching civic ideals of the American community." Likewise, they say, the nation's public schools are not doing a good job of teaching the importance of democracy, instead holding that "everything is relative, simply a matter of taste or preference, and that truth is a social construct [and] that there are no universal standards of right or wrong."

In part the editors blame the failure to promote social cohesion on growing economic and racial segregation in public schools. The old idea of the common school -- which would "enroll everyone from all social backgrounds" -- was made obsolete when suburbanization produced economically differentiated neighborhoods, says Mark Holmes. Given the persistent racial segregation of public schools, Viteritti writes, "it must seem altogether silly for parents living in racially isolated communities with inferior schools to hear middle-class professionals brood over the threat of social fragmentation" posed by voucher programs. In any event, the old common-school assimilationist model is inequitable, Holmes charges. Opponents of vouchers, he says, "are left defending the dubious ethic of mandatory inculcation of democratic dogma in all children, except those fortunate enough to have affluent parents."

Finally, the collection argues that private schools promote democracy by sustaining Tocqueville's concept of "civil society." Here is the volume's major innovation: Whereas in the past voucher advocates have employed the sterile economic language of "education markets" and "consumers," now vouchers are said to enrich the vital institutions that stand between the state and the market. In this way, the fact that the vast majority of private schools are faith-based turns from a constitutional obstacle to a civic plus. In a pluralistic democracy, public funds should go to support sectarian schools because churches, says Viteritti, "are the backbone of civil society in America." Such, indeed, was the original vision of Americans in the early nineteenth century, before education was "transformed from a civic activity conducted as a private matter to a governmental function overseen by a public bureaucracy."

The remarkable thing about this volume is that one can agree completely with several key premises of the writers -- that democracy needs critical thinkers, that we need better ways to encourage identification with America rather than with narrow ethnic groups, that students should be taught the values of democracy and tolerance, and that we need a thriving civil society -- and for those very reasons strongly oppose school vouchers.

If we want students who think critically, do we really want parents to use public funds to educate their children at institutions handpicked to replicate the parents' private beliefs (about, say, creationism) rather than to expose students to broader possibilities? If we want to teach children what it means to be an American, do we want public funds to subsidize private schools set up especially to appeal, say, to an Armenian population, or to those seeking an Afrocentric curriculum? What about schools that harden religious differences rather than emphasizing commonality? If we want to teach democracy and equality and tolerance -- not just out of a textbook, but in an environment where the lessons are reinforced by the everyday experience of students -- do we want to move toward a privatized system that has resulted in greater segregation by race and class when tried in New Zealand, Chile, and the Netherlands? Finally, if we want a rich civil society, with a flourishing religious sector, is it not relevant that our system of strict separation of church and state has long been associated with the strong religious commitment among our citizens?

Surely, American public schools can do more to promote democracy and national identity. To re-create the common school that is economically and racially integrated today requires greater public-school choice to overcome entrenched patterns of residential segregation. But overall the public schools have served us well. The late Albert Shanker, a giant in the field of education and democracy, once wrote:

A Martian who happened to be visiting Earth soon after the United States was founded would not have given this country much chance of surviving. He would have predicted that this new nation, whose inhabitants were of different races, who spoke different languages, and who followed different religions, wouldn't remain one nation for long. They would end up fighting and killing each other. . . . But that didn't happen. . . . Public schools played a big role in holding our nation together.

Today, we're a more diverse nation than ever -- precisely why it's more important than ever to find institutions that bind us together. Significantly, the chasms are bridgeable; indeed, there is strong evidence in William Damon's chapter in this volume that refutes Glazer's claim that we're too diverse for the common school to work anymore. Damon cites a 1999 Public Agenda survey finding that "foreign-born and native-born parents, including whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, share a belief that the United States is a special country. . . . They voice a new patriotism that is calm and inclusive." Strong majorities of all groups, the survey finds, believe in "individual freedom and opportunity, combined with a commitment to tolerance and respect for others," and large numbers say that schools should "teach all children about the ideals and history of the country."
Yes, there are inequities in the current system because the wealthy can buy out of our public schools. But while it is one thing for the rich to dig into their own pockets to exercise a constitutional right, it is quite another to ask taxpayers to subsidize a system of vouchers that threatens to undermine the democratic principles and national cohesion we have come to appreciate so much, especially in recent months.

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