Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Kappan Special Report: Friends, Foes & Noncombatants - Notes on Public Education's Pressure Groups

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Kappan Special Report: Friends, Foes & Noncombatants - Notes on Public Education's Pressure Groups

Article excerpt

IT SEEMS THAT wherever one turns these days, once-unlikely advocates and activists are expounding about public schools and demanding a piece of the action to change them. To understate the obvious, tracking the pressure groups that now move education policy has seldom been trickier.

In simpler times - say, 25 years ago - a hardy staple of the received wisdom about the politics of education, as of most domains of public policy, was that an "iron triangle" of legislatures, governments, and issue-focused interest groups could hammer out enough deals and compromises to set public agendas and, when the stars were aligned, translate them into child- and school-friendly policies. But that was then and this is now, a time when the eminences of public education must reckon with realities and concepts that until recently were below the radar or even alien to the triangulators.

If, as we must fervently hope never happens, we were to have a national education czar, that overmatched mortal would face a lineup of "external" forces and upheavals as complex as any that have ever confronted the schools. Leading public education may not qualify as a daily exercise in postdoctoral quantum physics, but the demographic, political, and economic convulsions that are pounding on the institution at the turn of the century are complicated enough. Some were not even visible only a decade ago.

Although their dots don't always connect, the futurists are having a grand time with millennial forecasting. Predictably, much of what they are offering stresses the centrality of electronic and digital technology, an inescapable focus when our children are growing, learning, and being entertained in what the social critic Sven Birkets labels a "data-and-image-saturated culture." Our nonstop information- producing extravaganza shows no signs of quieting down. Dealing with it as a vital feature of 21st-century education poses core issues of usage, resources, training, attitudes, and perhaps most cogent, influence. We still have no clear sense of who will ultimately advocate sensibly on those issues. What we do know is that most children have decent access to the evolving miracles of applied science but that literally millions of others don't.

Accompanying our near-universal obsession with technology is a deep- seated popular mistrust of most things public, including "government schools" or "education camps," locutions some conservatives have adopted to stigmatize public education. Despite countless anecdotes of inspirational dedication and generosity, and a lot of editorializing and political cheerleading, we are also witnessing an erosion of public-spiritedness on the part of the nation's new "haves" in what the writer Gregg Easterbrook calls "America the OK."1 As we grope for a political path somewhere between the Right and what passes for today's American Left, there is no telling how enthusiastically a skeptical public will continue to back schools and school systems that, nearly a generation after A Nation at Risk, are being reviled daily, even as they begin to gain strength.

At a moment of unprecedented prosperity in which corporate chiefs and successful investors are national icons, budget surpluses seem achievable, and materialism is no longer sinful, talk of privatizing anything public that isn't bolted down has become commonplace. Education, we are reminded daily, is a prime target. The overwhelmingly conservative talk show culture inherited from the 1990s echoes the call - indeed, some privateers call for nothing less than the elimination of the public schools - but the same culture provides pitifully few opportunities for education's spokespersons to spotlight their case. When they get the rare chance to counter the naysayers, too many mainstream educators still lapse into a murky blend of self-protective officialese, edujargon, and policy patois. Regrettably, too, even as it became the centerpiece of the new century's first Presidential campaign, too many Americans still believe education reform to be the ultimate national soporific. …

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