Stop the Slander

It’s that time of year. Backpacks are flying off the shelves at Walmart, school hallways are glistening with a fresh coat of wax, and parents are making their kids smile on the front porch for Instagram. 

As summer break comes to a bittersweet close, some 50 million American students will find themselves walking through the doors of their local public schools, ready to begin the new year. Four of them will be my own kids, and another 150 will be students in my high school English classes. Needless to say, I’m personally invested in this upcoming school year, and even more so, I’m personally invested in the welfare of public education as a whole. Which is precisely why I find it so frustrating to hear people disparage it carelessly from the sidelines.

It’s something I’ve heard for most of my life. Growing up as a public school kid surrounded by a community of religious fundamentalism, there were plenty of people who thought my parents were ruining my life by not enrolling me in the strict Christian school operated by our church. Later on, I became exposed to the criticisms of zealous homeschool families who believed that it was an inexcusable abdication of parental responsibility to allow children to be educated anywhere other than their own dining room tables. More recently, the strongest voices of dissent I hear seem to be coming from those with a political ax to grind (and an unhealthy paranoia of their kids growing up to become Democrats).

What I’ve found, however, is that despite the different sources of criticism directed toward public schools, there are a few common, universal misconceptions that seem to animate much of the hostility. Although these ideas may get a lot of traction in certain circles of thought, they’re simply uninformed and untrue. Anyone relying on them to score points for their team needs to find new talking points, and anyone hearing them being recited in public discourse needs to call them out for the erroneous myths that they are.

Myth #1: Public schools are ineffective at instructing students.

Terrible test scores. Oversized classes. Lazy teachers. Tedious curriculum. Hostile administrators. Bored students. These are just a few of the complaints raised by critics in order to malign the quality of instruction being delivered in the average public school classroom. To hear some people describe it, you’re as likely to get a decent education in a public school as you are to get a juicy ribeye in a vegan restaurant.

To be fair, public schools are indeed imperfect institutions. There are a thousand ways they can (and should) be improved, and anyone who denies that statement has their head in the sand. But to dismiss public education outright as universally inferior is nothing more than a lazy and unjustified caricature. Such a sentiment betrays an unwillingness to acknowledge that effective instruction looks different for every student. 

Take test scores, for example. It’s easy to ridicule a local school’s performance data from standardized assessments or state proficiency exams, especially when compared with the prestigious private school down the road. But those who insist on using this metric as a weapon in their arsenal often fail to appreciate the many complex challenges lurking below the surface. 

Are they taking into consideration the student who has switched schools five times in the past year because her family’s housing situation is so unstable? Or the student who works 30 hours a week so his family can have food in the pantry? Or the student who is kept awake every night by the sounds of domestic disputes right outside her door?

There’s an untold story behind all the numbers, and rarely is it a story about quality of instruction. Instead, it’s a story about privilege, opportunity, and resources. If public schools restricted their enrollment to students from exclusively affluent, well-educated homes (as many private schools effectively manage to do), then of course scores would go up. But public school educators aren’t just responsible for instructing the top performers. They’re committed to all students, because public schools are established to welcome all students into their classrooms.

Ironically, the very thing that often makes public schools look poor on paper is the same thing that makes them so important in real life. At the end of the day, it’s simply impossible to quantify the value of young people learning alongside their neighbors and fellow community members. After all, true education isn’t just about memorizing the quadratic formula or figuring out where to put a comma. It’s about developing the skills necessary to function as a productive member of society in cooperation with others who might not share the same economic status, religious beliefs, political affiliation, or ethnic heritage.

That’s what I love about public schools; they’re inescapably representative. The kid from the gun-toting MAGA family sits next to the kid with a Bernie t-shirt and two moms. The kid whose parents don’t speak English sits next to the kid whose dad is on the school board. In addition to all the academic disciplines such as math, language, and science, public schools provide something more: an education in exposure. No statistic can adequately reflect the life-shaping impact of those experiences.

Public schools bring everyone together. And in a culture that is increasingly marred by fragmentation and division, this may be one of the most important things any school has to offer.

Myth #2: Public schools indoctrinate students with liberal ideologies.

It’s always something. When I was in school, the big one was evolution. More recently it’s been critical race theory, LGBTQ issues, and Toni Morrison novels. Although the focal points may change over time, the outrage remains the same. In every cultural moment, there’s an abundance of raw panic about how our innocent children are supposedly being brainwashed with the latest leftist agenda. If true, it’s a terrifying scenario for any parent. 

The problem, of course, is that it’s not true.

In the United States today, there are over 3 million public school teachers. That’s a lot of people, and it doesn’t even account for all the administrators, counselors, and other support staff that interact with students on a daily basis. Have you ever tried to get thirty people to be on the same page about something? And yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that over 3 million people are actively participating in a vast government conspiracy to brainwash the youth of America? (Remember, this is the same education system that is simultaneously accused of being incompetent and ineffective at actually educating young people…which seems a bit ironic.)

The point here is that the front lines of public education look as diverse as America itself. Some educators are young, some are old. Some live in big cities, some live in the middle of nowhere. Some drive EVs, some drive SUVs. Some coach football, some direct theater. Some go to church, some have no religion. Some are NRA members, some support PETA. 

To claim that public schools are monolithic factories of liberal propaganda is to deny the reality of who’s actually running them. Even if schools wanted to indoctrinate students with a certain ideology, there’s no way it would actually work.

So why do the vocal critics of public education insist on raising this objection? Maybe it’s because when they use the term “indoctrination,” what they really mean is “exposure.”

Any competent educator strives to cultivate a classroom environment where students are empowered to explore intellectually and form their own conclusions. In many cases, this means introducing them to diverse ideas. And sometimes, those ideas might happen to prove threatening to what their parents hold to be true. 

For example, if Mom and Dad want Johnny to believe that America is God’s gift to the planet, they might get nervous if Johnny’s social studies teacher assigns him first-person accounts of the transatlantic slave trade. Johnny’s parents might email the principal and demand a change in curriculum. They might go to the school board meeting and raise a fuss. They might even enlist the firepower of certain politicians who love to beat the drum of over-sensationalized outrage.

But what’s happening in that classroom isn’t some sort of leftist, anti-American indoctrination. Not even close. It’s simply a case of a responsible teacher making sure that all points of view are heard. Perhaps Johnny’s parents don’t want that point of view to be heard, but that’s their problem, not the teacher’s. In the end, maybe they’re the ones guilty of indoctrination. After all, intellectual openness is only dangerous to those who have something to hide.

Myth #3: Public school parents aren’t sufficiently involved in their kids’ education.

Of all the lies that get told about public education, this one infuriates me the most. That’s because it’s more than an abstract critique of an impersonal government institution. Instead, it’s a highly pointed indictment of a parent’s commitment to their own kids. Of my commitment to my own kids.

This idea that public school parents aren’t involved in educating their kids is particularly prevalent among homeschool families who talk about how they have chosen not to “outsource” their child’s education or “abdicate” their parental responsibility. The not-so-subtle implication, of course, is that the rest of us have.

The immediately apparent problem with this mindset is the callousness it shows toward real-world parents for whom anything other than public education is not a viable option. I’d love to see a self-righteous homeschooling parent tell a single mom working two jobs to make ends meet that she’s not as involved in her kids’ lives as she should be. That should go over really well. How many families honestly have the financial means, the free time, and the educational background to adequately provide their own kids with the comprehensive academic training they need? It’s a luxury that only a small percentage of privileged families can even remotely entertain.

But the real issue I have with this myth is its abject lack of consistency and logic. Is it really a case of parental negligence when a child’s academic development is entrusted to trained professionals who have devoted their careers to education?

Just the other day, I took one of my kids to the orthodontist for a check-up on her braces. Am I “outsourcing” her dental care by not choosing to straighten her teeth at home? What about when I take my son to football practice and let another person coach him? Or when I pay a trained beautician to cut my daughters’ hair? Or when we go to the pediatrician for a shot?

Good parents know that the process of raising a human being isn’t just a one- or two-person job. It takes collaboration and input from specialists whose expertise far exceeds that of any one parent. It doesn’t mean you’re apathetic or uninvolved. It just means you’re wise about exercising your responsibility in partnership with others.

The bottom line is that for many parents, the most intentional thing they can do for their kids’ education is to enroll them in a public school. In the high school where I work, there are teachers with four or five decades of experience, teachers with doctorate degrees in their field, teachers who have won prestigious education awards, and teachers who spend their own time and money to hone their skills in the classroom. How on earth am I supposed to believe that I’m somehow doing my kids a service by keeping them at home, away from those teachers? If anything, it’s foolishly arrogant to think that I can provide them with an education that would be superior to what they will receive in the local school.

It’s fine if some parents have other options, and it’s fine if they believe their children will thrive in other environments. The point here isn’t to argue that anything other than public education is a bad choice. But there’s absolutely no justification for those parents to look down on the families whose kids are learning in public school classrooms. Fully nurturing and engaged parents can choose to educate their children in any number of ways.

In addressing these three myths, it’s important to clarify that I’m not opposed to our public education system being critiqued. Lord knows it has its flaws. Like anything else, it deserves to be scrutinized and held to a high standard. But there’s a big difference between scrutiny and slander. And insofar as any critique of public education relies on one of these three misconceptions, it’s likely going to be more slanderous than not.

Even if you decide not to make use of them, public schools offer an undeniably vital service to our communities. Within their halls the ideal of education as a basic human right is daily transformed from theory into practice. They are one of the most important tools of democracy we have: bringing all kids together, inviting all kids to learn, and giving all kids a chance to succeed.

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