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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Public Education as Commons

December 27, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

We’ve come to think of public education as a service rather than as a community asset for building prosperity, stability and growth. This attitude shift has led to a movement that views teachers as information service workers with more in common with retail or hospitality employees than with teachers’ traditional professional role. It’s time to think differently about public schooling. Education is the new commons. We all have a stake in its success and we should be wary of those who seek private financial under the guise of educational reform and improvement.

The education reform movement is fond of big, simplistic ideas masking systemic upheaval and chaos. No Child Left Behind, still the law of the land although effectively toothless, wasted a dozen years and billions of dollars creating a standardized testing and evaluation system that was, increasingly, all stick and no carrot. Even though federal legislators can’t agree on NCLB’s replacement, all agree that it’s not working, leading to the Obama Administration’s termination by fiat. The present big idea uses flawed standardized testing to inform a teacher evaluation matrix that creates considerable school drama by reinforcing the contention that teachers aren’t teachers so much as they’re easily replaceable content providers, without creating any clear, positive outcome.

Today, Minnesota is spending less money on state K-12 funding, adjusted for inflation, than it was a dozen years ago. In this same period, school funding for standardized testing and private consulting has grown. School districts are spending more on standardized testing instruments with dubious outcomes. The big test doesn’t give teachers guidance in improving student learning but does create an evaluation accountability benchmark that subtly holds teachers singularly accountable for an incredible range of social, economic and performance variables. Consultants and testing companies enjoy growing profits without the same scrutiny or expectation. They’re the next phase in privatizing public education.

This is not a healthy direction for Minnesota public education. Rather than reinforce this new, unhealthy, cheap sandwich shop schooling model, let’s think differently. Let’s start thinking of schools as educational assets that benefit Minnesota rather than as a funding source for increasing private profit at public expense. Let’s think of education as commons.

Commons are, historically, a community asset, almost always property, reserved for collective use. That property is simultaneously public and private. It might belong to the local lord but area residents had a right to access and limited use. A small tenant farmer might cultivate a few private crop acres while simultaneously grazing a cow or two on the community’s commons. Since all members used and benefitted from the space, informal use restrictions protected the commons land from over-grazing, retaining its productivity.

The Enclosure Movement was a process experienced during Europe’s industrialization period. Typically, it’s represented as physical restriction of commonly-used areas but, most importantly, enclosure was a process for stripping traditional community property use rights from many rights-holders and concentrating those rights into a few hands. A hereditary, feudal English land-owner held title to a particular area but community tenants retained rights for collective use. As sheep-grazing in support of English woolen production grew, pushing aside cattle production traditions, land owners experienced a strong economic incentive to maximize their grazing access while limiting even the smallest competitors. It was one important step in the conversion of England’s agrarian economy to an industrialized successor.

Land ownership and land tenancy rights traditionally meant income and wealth. Consequently, private property rights lies at the center of Anglo-American legal tradition. With the industrial revolution, intellectual property supplanted real property as the means of wealth creation. That shift and its subsequent cultural shake-out up-ended societal organization. We’re still working through that change today.

Education was, until relatively recently, a private rather than a public function. 150-200 years ago, government did not provide publicly funded educations; financing schooling fell to families. But, democracy’s growth revealed the strong public desire for public education. As communities experienced economic growth driven by an increasingly educated workforce, public schools were rapidly developed as a necessary, central component of contemporary life. Minnesota, like many states, even wrote public education financing into its state constitution.

Today, the evidence for education’s centrality is clear, unimpeachable and unassailable. But, we haven’t quite escaped the old contention that education is, somehow, a better private rather than a public expense. That’s why I’m suggesting that schools are the new commons. Education is a shared asset that provides private and public benefits simultaneously and must be regarded, preserved and protected as such. A superior life and community transforming education isn’t achieved by diving to the bottom. Instead, Minnesota must draw from its rich tradition supporting strong public schools and guarding against attempts to undermine them. Education is a commons asset. We have a deeply vested interest in its success.

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