public adj. of, relating to, or affecting the people as an organized community
private adj. belonging to or concerning an individual person, company, or interest
Behind the rhetoric on issues like health care and Social Security lies a critical philosophical debate that will determine what kind of nation we become in the 21st century. Are we a public nation or a private one? Do we see ourselves as a community of citizens that are responsible for the safety and the welfare of one another, or are we a loose collection of individuals who are interested only in protecting our own rights and personal property?
I was reminded of how I answer these questions when I dropped my children off at school this morning. It was a practical demonstration of the many benefits that a free public education for every child has for all of society.
First, my son’s kindergarten class is racially balanced. In his previous pre-school (which was private), there was one non-white child in the entire body of about 50 students. Before, I could tell that my son was leery of black children when he was out in public (because he had no experience with them). Now, one of his best friends is of a different race than he is – something that never would have happened if we hadn’t decided to put him in public school.
In addition, about half of the kids in my son’s class receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. In my community, there are many devastatingly poor families. The teachers can tell that some of them get very little if anything to eat at home. Public school feeding programs, therefore, are perhaps the best way to fight child hunger and to ensure that poor children can pay attention in school and have a shot at getting an education.
Finally, most of the kids in my son’s class ride the bus to school. Without the bus, many of their parents – who work all day or have no car – could not get them to school and back home. The school bus is one of the most underrated tools that promotes the social good, because it goes a long way in leveling the playing field and giving all children that equal opportunity just to be in school – and isn’t equal opportunity what conservatives and liberals like to crow about? . . .
These many benefits of the public school system are being undermined by the migration toward private schools that began with “white flight, ” and also the growing trend of home schooling. The needs of the individual child are being given priority over the welfare of American children as a whole, a microcosm of the overall pattern of “privatization” and “the ownership society.”
The greatest strength of the progressive movement, in my opinion, is that it refutes this notion that individuals in society are not collectively responsible for welfare of all – especially for the basic welfare and education of children that gives them a realistic shot at breaking out of poverty.
And public education, more than anything I can think of, embodies this progressive value of mutually-dependent community. It’s paid for for the taxes of citizens, even by the taxes of citizens who don’t have children, because well-educated children are good for all of society. Only the most hard-core of libertarians will disagree with this notion.
Which brings me to the critical point of this public vs. private question. In my son’s small-town elementary school, most of the teachers are Republicans. But they have dedicated their lives to public education, and they very work hard for very little pay to teach these children and to give all of them a chance at a decent life.
Unlike many conservatives, these teachers are constantly calling for better funding of public schools, and they will vigorously defend school lunch programs and the importance of having school buses that can pick up every child in the district. They know that the concept of free public education that is accessible to all children is a bedrock American principle that we should never abandon.
The challenge for us as progressives, then, is to make the argument that the same principles should hold for health care, Social Security, and a number of other ways that government can wisely invest in the people’s welfare. There is a disconnect in a society that almost unanimously agrees that every child should be educated, but that is bitterly divided over whether children should have access to medical care. It is our job to help make that connection.
[definitions from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus]