In the world of education, are we focused on a product, a mode of delivery, or our customers?
Several years ago, when I was introducing fellow state government attorneys to the work of the state-wide school district I worked in, I shared this picture.
I then asked the audience to answer these questions:
Is this a public school?
How do you know?
We then discussed different theories of what makes a school public.
Every state constitution requires that a public education be made available to all children. Some of those constitutions provide more detail, for example, requirements for quality, funding, or the legislature's role in defining those schools or systems of schools.
But "education" doesn't equal "school," and "school" doesn't equal "school building."
Tennessee's constitution moves quickly from "education" to "schools." Section 12 of the Tennessee constitution says, "The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools."
That constitution could have required the General Assembly to provide a system that ensures each child receives a quality education paid for by the state.
No wonder, then, that it's been easy for us to slip into shortcuts in our discussions about education in the Covid era. This spring, we were quick to say "school is closed" when what we really meant is that the physical buildings our children were used to attending were closed. And much of the discussion in the media has focused on whether or not it's safe to continue to deliver education in the way most school leaders and teachers have been used to delivering it.
Education is the difference between a relatively happy, healthy life, and a life of constant struggle.
It is also a business. Arguably the most important business our communities engage in. People in any business, including education, can choose to make their product or their mode of delivery paramount. Or they can make their customers a priority, and adjust the product or the mode of delivery to meet their customers' needs.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, in his book, Active Liberty, said,
[T]he people, and their representatives, must have the capacity to exercise their democratic responsibilities. They should possess the tools, such as information and education, necessary to participate and to govern effectively. . . . [T]he Constitution is not a document designed to solve the problems of a community at any level—local, state, or national. Rather it is a document that trusts people to solve those problems themselves.
All of us with an interest in education should regularly consider our primary motivation for doing what we do and how we do it. Are we devoted to young people and their long-term flourishing, or are we committed to a particular product or system of delivery?
If we, as the Aurora Institute puts it, we want to empower young people "to attain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to achieve success, contribute to their communities and advance society," then we should be willing to change what, how, when, and where we do our part to make that success real.
P.S. That picture is of a public elementary school. Our oldest son is the kid in the blue shirt plotting what to do with the cup of water in his hand.