Central Falls and the Crisis in Public Education

As some of the dust settles from the battle over Central Falls High School, it’s worthwhile to sit back and look at how we got here. According to this synopsis, the history of public education has proceeded on two conflicting paths: on the one hand, there has been a move to increase access to public education while on the other, there has been a drive to ensure higher quality through test-based measures of student performance.

Access to education has gone through several stages, according to this account. First, child labor laws took children out of the industrial workplace and into public schools. Next, there was the Brown v. Board of Education, which was supposed to ensure that African-Americans could go to the same schools as whites. And, finally, in the 1980s, according to this account, there was a renewed push to ensure all children went to public school. We think the author glosses over some important details in that last stage. One is the more recent movement toward bilingual education. The other is the history of special education, which requires that school districts meet the needs of special needs children, as early as 3 years old and as late as 21 years—significantly longer than the average student, and, sometimes, at a far higher cost.

The point is that government has focused on ensuring equal access for all to public education but it has not necessarily put as much effort into ensuring that that education is high quality. That’s how you end up with a situation like the one at Central Falls High School, where half the students fail their class and less than half fail to graduate. So, equal access for all may be fine and good, but it should not be an end in of itself. The question is: equal access to what? If it’s to failing schools, equality doesn’t count for that much.

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