Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Tucked amid the shocking news of last week’s shootings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, and the tragicomedy of the presidential election, was an article in The New York Times on Saturday about a name change. Right wing conservatives in Kansas are beginning to call their public schools “government schools.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/us/schools-kansas-conservatives.html. While this linguistic innovation, buried well back in the paper, was news to me, a little research uncovered a trend which has been underway for some years. Fox commentator John Stossel proposed it three years ago in a blog supporting homeschooling, charters, vouchers, private schools, and tax credits. Nevertheless, it remains a shock.
Stossel’s blog makes it clear that the change in terminology is anything but innocent. “Now I know that [the] public school – government school is a better name – is one of the worst parts of America. It’s a stultified government monopoly. It never improves.” Rebranding public schools from public goods shared by all for the good of all, to “government schools” is intended to denote an invasive intrusion into our lives and, coming from those who detest government in principle, as a demeaning slur. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of labeling public servants government bureaucrats. No one can be fooled into thinking this shift is neutral in intent. As a professor of linguistics told The Times, government schools “is austere. It has an oppressive ring to it. It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term hope those words will come to mind.”
The term is a potent tool of those who wish to undermine public education in this country through the massive expansion of unregulated charters, the transfer of public dollars for education to private entrepreneurship, and the introduction of a relatively unregulated for-profit ideology into the teaching of our children. It implies the invasive introduction of a third tier of schools into the American system: one for wealthy elites who can pay private tuition or purchase homes in well to do communities with high end per pupil spending, a second for the relatively privileged who can access decent neighborhood public schools or quasi-public schools supported by tax transfers, private foundations, and other clever privatization mechanisms, a third for the economically and geographically trapped underclass consigned to “government schools” that are increasingly underfunded, racially segregated, and threatened constantly by the harsh imposition of state take-overs and so-called “turn-around” plans.
Until the 1990’s, public schools were widely embraced as “our” national treasure. They belonged to “us” in ways that engendered our passionate support and engagement. In our public schools, understood as public goods, citizens claimed a responsibility for the common good. Think yes votes for tax levies, voluntary service on elected school boards, baking cupcakes, joining PTA’s. “Government schools” recasts this vision in sinister terms and reflects the end game of decades of so-called “school reform” coupled with the defunding, demeaning, and diminishment of government itself. Schools are “the government’s” responsibility, not ours. This orchestrated estrangement leads directly to under-resourced, disrupted, dismantled schools which are then used as poster children of government schools’ alleged deficiency requiring the reformers’ repair. A self-fulfilling negative feedback loop is created.
We all know that words can hurt institutions and people as effectively as sticks and stones. The people who toss around the term “government schools” clearly intend to hurt public schools in order to open the door for ideologically driven privatizing reforms that have proven ineffective or worse, and that in some cases provide profit making opportunities for the reformers themselves. What’s in a name? Plenty. Our nation needs to watch its tongue.
John H. Thomas
July 14, 2016
For additional commentary, read Jan Resseger’s blogpost at https://janresseger.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/government-schools-vs-public-schools/
Jan is a long-time public school advocate and educational analyst for the United Church of Christ and the National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA