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Searching for "Public" in Public Education

The Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund Blog features the unique voices and perspectives of people who make up the diverse fabric of the Colorado community who are engaged in Black philanthropy. It's a platform to share their comments and opinions on how people in the Black community give back, discuss historical and current challenges, and illustrate Black resilience. This month, Antwan Jefferson, an Associate Clinical Professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, discusses his search for "public" in public education.

Antwan Jefferson sitting on a step in front of a building.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word public means the community of people in general and or concerning the people as a whole. However, at the heart of this essay is a single question that I have tried to understand throughout my career in education, whether as a high school teacher of English literature and composition or as an education faculty at a public research university in Denver: what does the "public" in public education mean? This question is essential when examining the impact of education practices that don't concern or consider everyone and the inequities this can produce. In this opinion essay, I explore the question, trying to discover the meaning of

public education as informed by three historical educational periods in the US.

Before I begin, I want to provide a couple of disclosures.

  1. My wife is the principal of Denver Public School's (DPS) only predominantly Black-enrolled elementary school.

  2. I have two children who are former DPS students: one who is now a student at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) and one who is a DPS high school freshman.

  3. As an academic faculty member, I have aided in the preparation of educators and education leaders in a professional capacity since 2010.

  4. I am committed to documenting the school experiences of the Denver region's diverse communities and families and interjecting them into our collective thinking about education policy and practice. The Denver Journal of Education and Community (a program of Education and Community) exists for this specific purpose.

These disclosures represent my experience lens and my vested interest in public education.

Below, I have organized this opinion essay according to three critical historical events. I also suggest that these historical events manifest today with slightly different features. These are ideas that I hope you'll consider.

The Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840)

During the Industrial Revolution, public education was not a thing. As the children of landowners received a formal education, "common" children were put to work because they were cheap labor and would be less idle. While "common" children faced significant harm as they worked in mills, mines, factories, and farms, there was a burgeoning national commitment to establishing an economy built on their labor. Regarding this era, education may be adequately described as a place away from the public.

The Era of Compulsory Education (1642 & 1918 to present)

Compulsory education began in Massachusetts in 1642, and by 1918, all US states had attendance laws in place. The published primary and principal aim of compulsory education in the US was to prepare youth to be civic actors participating in a democratic society. An additional and substantial outcome of compulsory education was the resulting taxation, which constructed a massive institutional enterprise that requires the assessment of personal property taxes to sustain it. In this case, it can be reasonably argued that an individual's earned wages are not wholly their own. Education began to be imposed upon the public during this time.

Brown v. Board of Education Legislature (1954)

As reflected in this important US Supreme Court decision, the central prerogative of public education was front and center in national education legislation, clearly tackling the question of race in public education (separate is unequal). The Court determined it in the best interest of Black children to be in schools with white children. While separation was unequal, equality was to be achieved via the revolution of Black children in the orbit of white children and culture. The diasporic community of Black Americans was not considered adequate to educate white children. As such, entire states, such as Georgia, sought to close all public districts and instead use state dollars to fund white children to attend private schools. The perception of Black inferiority was a problem to be solved through proximity to whiteness. State-level education legislation effectively removed the responsibility to educate its children from the public.

These three critical phases of educational systems are still evolving, in which the word "public" remains ambiguous.

The education industry continues to innovate while producing consequences and costs to public schools and advancing an economic model that depends upon the labor of children. Tyack and Cuban [1] argued that schools have experienced constant and failed reforms for over a century, often reflecting the interests and investments of the era's leading industries. Today, technology industry interest and investment (STEM) shape public schools (and post-secondary pursuits) much more than the interests of the communities from which children come to school. While children may be educated in the industry, they are often educated away from the public.

Contemporary Compulsory Schooling

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, compulsory education continues with some variances across states. In Colorado, the age of required school attendance is 6 to 17. Schools across the country continue to enforce attendance requirements; in Colorado, the Compulsory School Attendance law [2] establishes the necessary number of hours that a child is required to attend school each year. Such laws cannot ensure that, upon completion of a school program, a student is guaranteed post-secondary access to education, a degree, and a career. Thus, the goal of public education is not clear. What is clear, though, is that education is done to the public.

Contemporary Education Legislation

Each year, state legislatures nationwide attempt to fulfill judiciary mandates by passing new laws. In Colorado, for instance, during the 2023 legislative session, 681 bills were introduced. A quick search on the Colorado General Assembly website reveals 55 education or school finance bills introduced during this latest session. The norm of saturation legislation, a label I'm trying out, is questionable, as it suggests education legislation for the sake of legislation. Required school attendance removes children from their communities [3], and education is from the public.

These turns reveal the systematic and sustained use of schooling to remove power from local families and communities. I may be wrong about all of this. Nonetheless, my central question stands: what does the "public" in public education mean? I’m hoping for among.

About Antwan Jefferson:

Antwan Jefferson teaches in the Human Development and Family Relations program and the Urban and Diverse Communities concentration of the Leadership for Educational Equity doctorate (EdD) program. His teaching emphasizes interrogating race, class, and gender arrangements; achieving social justice; increasing an asset-based emphasis on diverse families; and supporting stronger and deeper community engagement in the schooling education of students through the pre-service training of helping professionals and teachers. His research agenda considers how family and community members experience schools and organizations in their communities, including the implications of space, voice, and power in decision-making and not-for-profit organizations and schools.

[1] Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1997). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Harvard University Press. [2] Title 22, Colorado Revised Statutes: Education Article 33: School Attendance Law of 1963 Section 104 [3] An obvious exception to this is homeschooling.


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