Amy Lueck writes in this article about the role of the high school in shaping American society and building a sense of community, an understanding that these children are OUR children.

She begins:

In 2016, shortly after she was appointed to the position, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared American public schools a “dead end.” Instead, DeVos advocates for “school choice,” code for charter schools, vouchers, and other privatization efforts.

Families who have watched their local schools struggle might agree with DeVos, but her characterization is still troubling. It reflects a distrust of education as a communal goal, not just an individual one. That’s a big change from the objective of American public schools during their first two centuries. Far from being a “dead end,” for a long time the public school—particularly the public high school—served an important civic purpose: not only as an academic training ground, but also as a center for community and activity in American cities.

From curricular offerings to extracurricular activities, shared milestones to cultural traditions, high schools have been remarkably consistent across the country and even across generations. Many Americans can remember the awkward school dances that memorialized the best (and worst) music of the day. Or bumping past different teenage archetypes on their way to classes. Or the pep fests and rallies they may have loved, or loved to hate. Football games that captured the attention of entire towns.

Public schools have also perpetuated racial and economic inequity. But the high school still galvanized a shared, American society. It helped people aspire toward greater equality together, and it used education to bring together diverse interests and people to forge social bonds of support. That effort shaped the American city of the 19th and early-20th centuries. High schools can continue to do this, so long as they can resist being dismantled.

She traces the history of the high school, and the departure of affluent white families for the suburbs, which has affected desegregation and funding.

She concludes:

As Americans face a new era of educational reform and broad societal change, they might do well to heed a lesson from the first two centuries of public education: As an institution, the fate of the high school cannot be detached from the community of which it is a part. Like all educational institutions, it is inextricably wrapped up with the goals and values of the town, city, and nation in which it is located, reflecting and perpetuating them.

Those values include Americans’ attitude to the very schools that would pass them along, too. If, as a nation, we decide that the public schools are a “dead end” for students, we should not be surprised if they become so—and along with them, the cities, towns, and communities they once built together.

Yes, we are trying to hold on to something important: community, democracy, the common good. Are we prepared to junk them in exchange for “choice?”