School is everything—the provider of meals, on-the-spot nursing care, security and substitute parenting.
In the progressive tradition, as Bill Reese demonstrated so powerfully almost thirty years ago in Power and the Promise of School Reform, this vision of school as social-redistribution center fulfills a long-held and deeply cherished ideal.
But how do conservatives view this use of public schools?
To be sure, in various instances, as I noted in an article several years ago in Church History, conservatives have also taken advantage of the wide reach of public schools. Conservative evangelicals, for example, have used schools as a convenient distribution network for Bibles and religious tracts. But in general, conservatives in America have not yearned for redistribution the same ways progressives have. Schools, many conservatives might agree, must be understood as educational institutions, not welfare agencies. When public schools try to do too much, some conservatives might argue, they end up doing nothing at all.
When school reform has worked for conservatives, Ross Douthat argued recently, it has been when market-based reforms have made schooling more equitable for low-income and minority students as well as affluent whites. That sort of concrete reform, Douthat wrote, has been the primary success conservatives have scored in overcoming their legacy as the party of white racism.
But that is not the sort of success trumpeted in the NYT feature. Those market reforms, the article argues, merely move schooling and public services farther out of the reach of girls like Dasani.
No, the article concludes, for homeless youth like Dasani,
school and life are indistinguishable. When school goes well, she is whole. When it goes poorly, she can’t compartmentalize like some students, who simply ‘focus’ on their studies.
According to the New York Times feature, Dasani’s life as a homeless eleven-year-old in glitzy New York City is rough. She shares a room in a shelter with her entire large family. They endure infestations of mice, roaches, and sexual predators. In contrast, Dasani’s classroom is a “cozy haven of book-lined shelves and inspirational words scrawled in chalk.” At school, Dasani gets attention from a brilliant and caring classroom teacher, as well as a social worker and medical professionals.
For us at ILYBYGTH, this seems like a perfect example of a perennial question at the heart of educational culture wars. What are schools for? Ought they provide all the services needed by every child, no matter how extensive those needs might be? Or should schools limit themselves to a narrower definition of “education,” focusing on academic work and leaving families to provide the rest?
In America’s twentieth century, one’s position on this question often served as a quick-and-easy definition of “progressives” vs. “conservatives.” Progressives wanted schools to think of education as a whole-life question, meeting children where they were and providing every social service possible to ensure a high-quality education for everyone. Conservatives, in contrast, have pushed for the elimination of “fads and frills” from public schools. The government—in school or anywhere else—ought not take primary responsibility for children or anyone else.
In this story, we see one example of the way this long-running disagreement has been won, largely, by the progressive vision. Dasani’s life is far from easy. But her ability to secure a range of services through her public school demonstrates the long-run triumph of one central progressive idea.