What Are Public Schools For?

| Dec 14, 2021

Recent battles over racially divisive curricula prompted Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to remark, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” But those battles, and the peculiar response that parents are best kept away from the process of educating their children, are signs of a much larger crisis. The gap in perspective between professional educators and the communities they serve about what public education is for has grown unsustainably large.

The gap is most evident, and costly, on the question of what outcome a good education should lead toward. For the current generation of reformers, the answer is simple: a college degree. Embracing this college-for-all mentality, secondary schools have become college-prep academies held accountable to rigorous testing regimes and college-going rates, while policymakers have plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into subsidizing higher education. Leading proposals for “free college” and student-loan forgiveness reinforce those commitments.

American parents disagree. In partnership with YouGov, my organization, American Compass, surveyed 1,000 American parents with a child between the ages of 12 and 30 about their priorities for the public education system. We asked: Which is more important, helping students “maximize their academic potential and gain admission to colleges and universities with the best possible reputations,” or helping them “develop the skills and values to build decent lives in the communities where they live?” By more than two to one, parents chose life preparation over academic excellence.

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Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.