This is National School Choice Week, an occasion that always makes me think back to 1976, when as a writer for my high school paper, I interviewed retiring Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joshua Wheeler. I asked Mr. Wheeler why our schools didn't require proficiency testing for graduation. "I know we're a great school system," I said diplomatically, "but even so, some of our kids graduate without being able to read and write."
Mr. Wheeler was an honest public servant, and I'll never forget his candid response: "Your question shows that you do not understand the purpose of the public education system. The purpose of public education is not to educate students. The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it."
"But what about the other kids?" I asked. "Why don't we let them leave school so the rest of us can learn? They'd be happier, we'd be happier, and it would save the taxpayers money." (I thought I was the first person to come up with the idea.)
"We can't do that," Mr. Wheeler explained patiently. "Crime would go up. Unemployment would go up. Parents would be angry. … And whenever we do require more homework and start failing kids, parents complain that their child is working too hard."
In some sense, Mr. Wheeler was right. In a democracy, public schools should serve public goals. If the voters want mediocre education, who am I to disagree? We're Americans, after all. We want schools with a bit of academics, superseded by sports and dances. Mr. Wheeler lasted six years as school superintendent; someone who wanted academic schools might not have lasted six minutes.
After talking with Mr. Wheeler, much of what I saw at my high school made sense. I now understood the teacher who slept through class, telling students that if they didn't bother him, he wouldn't bother them. I understood the goofy teacher who taught astrology rather than his subject, and a math teacher who hated math — and so instead gave delightful lectures on philosophy. They were not there to educate students, and in this they succeeded.
Yet, strange as it sounds, I still wanted to teach. Along with the turkeys, my high school had some great teachers, rebels who subverted the system by pushing students to meet high standards (or at least some standards). Someday I would join their ranks and do my small part to make the purpose of public schools educating all students, not just "those few who want it."
That lasted until college, when I asked a condescending education professor how to become a certified social studies teacher. He explained that I would need 12 education classes but only four in the social sciences. I had no need to understand the subject I taught, since "the curriculum people will tell you what to teach." In fact, it would be dangerous to have teachers who loved their subjects, since they might not "relate" to students who didn't. (I couldn't help but wonder whether schools would hire football coaches who didn't love football, and whether such coaches could win any games.)
At that point, I gave up on teaching high school, instead becoming a college professor. Two friends who wanted to teach got identical advice from education professors, with tragic results: They became attorneys. I don't think the school system missed our kind.
Still, the real trouble with the notion that schools need not educate students did not strike me until years later. Who decides which kids get taught and which kids get warehoused? Who decides which schools get AP programs and which don't? Who pays a price if the school bureaucracy in Towson decides that disadvantaged kids in Woodlawn don't want to learn, and thus need not be taught?
It struck me that the best way to have schools serve children, rather than just hold them in place, is to give parents their choice of schools. If parents choose mediocrity, so be it. At least it would be their choice, rather than what the system chose for them.
Joshua Wheeler, who died in 2003, was a dedicated public servant and a man of his time. But if he lived in our time, I think he might agree with me.
Robert Maranto, a Baltimore native, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.