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Remembering who "pays the piper" for public ed: Some questions to ponder

In my EDAD 590 class, Administration of School Personnel, students were recently sharing organizational charts from their districts.  Most of the charts had the superintendent or board of education at the top of the chart.  One notable exception, however, listed the name of the community at the top.  Several students remarked on this, how putting the community at the top was a useful reminder that the entire enterprise of public education is meant to serve the ordinary taxpayers and citizens of the local town or county.

That we need to be reminded of this says much about the blinders many of us professional educators tend to wear.

It's easy for us complain about out-of-touch politicians who make education policy but haven't set foot in a school since their own graduation, or community members who think because everyone sat through 12 or 13 years of school, everyone is an expert on education, or the countless, spiteful parents who have belittled our efforts and our training and reminded us that, "I pay your salary!"

Certainly, there are downsides to working for the public, frustrations that, while common to all public sector jobs, seem to get routinely thrown in the face of teachers and administrators.

But the fact is that all those taxpayers are paying our salaries, and so they can lay claim, in large and small ways, to how we do our jobs as educators.  Keeping this in mind could lead to improvements in the way we communicate about our work, and in how we structure educational policy.

For one thing, we need to get over our educational paternalism, this dangerous and deep-seated notion among educators that parents would be clueless in how to educate (and raise) their own children if it weren't for our vast knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum, and child development.  One thing I really appreciated when I worked in Catholic schools was their philosophy that families are the first teachers of their children; we who work in formal schooling are merely there to support their efforts.  Such a philosophy keeps our paternalism in check, and returns primary responsibility for education back to where it belongs: families themselves.

Moreover, millions of homeschooling families are proving that kids can, in fact, become well-educated and well adjusted without formal schooling at all.

If we took a humility pill and operated our schools according to the philosophy that parents are the first educators, how would that shape the way we communicate with familes, with students, with the public in general?  How would it shape we way we establish curriculum and instructional strategies?  I don't have a lot of answers for these questions, but I think they are worth asking.

What if we operated with a much higher degree of customer service focus than in the past, asking ourselves that, if parents could make a choice about where to educate their kids, would they choose us?  If so, why?  Are we giving them good reasons to choose us?  Are we communicating those reasons?

Are we taking the time to explain the ceaseless new "innovations" we perpetually pursue in education to parents and the community?  Are we inviting them into the conversation about whether we should be pursuing these initiatives at all, and what our priorities ought to be?

It's easy to say, "They wouldn't come; we can't get anyone to even run for Site-Based Council."  True, but this comes from a perspective where both sides have pretty much given up on any meaningful dialogue.  What if we changed our focus first?

Personally and professionally, I'd like to take away the hypotheticals and institute a meaningful, universal school voucher program, opening up new educational markets where parents really could exercise far more choices for their children's education.  Such a scenario would force our hand and we could not avoid the kinds of questions I'm suggesting we ponder.

In the meantime, while traditional public schools maintain a monopoly on educational services for the vast majority of families, we'd do well to stop resenting the community's apathy or interference in our professional efforts (as if having a monopoly has nothing to do with that apathy and interference in the first place) and seize the opportunity to see the community itself as our source and our summit.

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