The Power of the Public – Schools
In the Superintendent’s Enrollment Committee for the Pasadena Unified School District, a group of us are reading and discussing a book entitled American Public Education and the Responsibility of its Citizens by Sarah Stitzlein.
The book is compelling because it explains why public schools are indispensable to our democracy and how we the people are part and parcel of its success.
I chose the book for the enrollment committee because we live in a time when the importance of public schools is being lost in the trends of privatizing education. Public schools have a dynamic history that seems to keep getting lost.
Why Public Schools
So why are public schools important? Here is my answer: Every child has a seat in a public school. It sounds simple but it is quite profound. No matter who the child is or from where they came, they belong here.
Public education has had its struggles in the United States to be sure. Now we fight the hyper capitalistic phenomenon of privatization (vouchers) in order to preserve the uniquely American institution of public education. At every turn, it seems there is a private company marketing to us to let us know that our child might be better off somewhere else besides a public school.
We live in a time when we are seeing ourselves as consumers rather than citizens.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the complexity in the world today. The political theorist Benjamin Barber in 2017 suggested that we shift our thinking about the world from seeing nations and instead see our cities, where the majority of people live. It is in the cities, he said, “where we announce ourselves as citizens and participants as people with a right to write our own narratives.”
I understand his point as we are closest to the functions of government in our local communities. We are more apt to know who our city council members are and our librarians, our school board trustees, our mayors, and our county supervisors.
I would extend Barber’s idea to our public schools.
Personally, I think of myself as an Altadena resident and a member of the PUSD..
For me, it’s easy to support and love my local school district. Simply standing in any one of our schools is a humbling experience because our schools have been through so much history — segregation, integration, and then, unfortunately, resegregation, and now privatization, low birth rates, and high housing costs.
Throughout it all, we succeed.
The PUSD is thought of as a leader throughout the state of California. Our ideas are followed by others in the state in terms of our graduate defense and our graduate profile. We have had many successes and here are just a few:
• We are competitive. In our community, we have the largest number of private schools per capita, yet we are competitive with private schools because of our teachers, principals, signature programs, curriculum, and our diverse student body. There are private school students who choose to come to our district.
• Our graduates attend Yale, Harvard, Vanderbilt, UCLA, Pasadena City College, Howard, Occidental, USC, UC Berkeley, Tulane, UC San Diego, Brown, UC Merced, and more.
• We have been entrusted with back-to-back federal magnet grants because we have shown success.
• We are successfully achieving socio-economic integration through open enrollment.
Public and Publics
When I say public school, I emphasize public.
I understand that we are accustomed to hearing the blanket term public, but it’s more complex than that. Our public is actually formed of many publics. Publics are formed and disbanded constantly. We gather for different reasons such as fall festivals, fireworks on the 4thof July, parades, gathering in front of the school board trustees to state our opinions on teachers, facilities, sports, and mandates for COVID vaccines and masks.
In addition to these many publics, we build public things such as libraries, parks, community centers, and yes, public schools. Without them, it is hard to maintain a full democracy. In fact, I think it would be impossible.
In the book we are reading, the author Sarah Stitzlein wrote: “…public schools are a special public good because they impart the skills and knowledge necessary for future generations to remake themselves as publics and to deliberate upon and determine the public goods that they will hold.”
One of our enrollment committee members, Dr. Julie Hirst, Director of Instructional Technology at Pasadena Unified School District, said of the book, “Public schools nourish democracy by teaching students how to collectively problem solve and build shared identities.”
In the PUSD, as a parent and as a school board trustee, I experience the power of publics every day. It’s one of those unseen yet powerful forces in a working democracy.
Supporting your local public school through enrollment is a powerful statement about trust in your community. Speaking as an Altadenan, if you appreciate the diversity here in our community, enroll your child in PUSD.
Public schools are worth fighting for. Join us.
Jennifer Hall Lee is a PUSD Trustee.