This post is a follow-up to a piece I posted three weeks ago, which was Michael Katz’s 2020 essay, Public Education as Welfare. Below is my own take on this subject, which I wrote for a book that will be published in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of the Horace Mann League. The tentative title of the book is Public Education: The Cornerstone of American Democracy and the editors are David Berliner and Carl Hermanns. All of the contributions focus on the role that public schools play in American life. Here’s a link to a pdf of my piece.
Public Schooling as Social Welfare
David F. Labaree
In the mid nineteenth century, Horace Mann made a forceful case for a distinctly political vision of public schooling, as a mechanism for creating citizens for the American republic. In the twentieth century, policymakers put forth an alternative economic vision for this institution, as a mechanism for turning out productive workers to promote growth of the American economy. In this essay, I explore a third view of public schooling, which is less readily recognizable than the other two but no less important. This is a social vision, in which public schooling serves as a mechanism for promoting social welfare, by working to ameliorate the inequalities of American society.
All three of these visions construe public schooling as a public good. As a public good, its benefits flow to the entire community, including those who never attended school, by enriching the broad spectrum of political, economic, and social life. But public schooling is also a private good. As such, its benefits accrue only to its graduates, who use their diplomas to gain selective access to jobs at the expense of those who lack these credentials.
Consider the relative costs and benefits of these two types of goods. Investing in public goods is highly inclusive, in that every dollar invested goes to support the common weal. But at the same time this investment is also highly contingent, since individuals will gain the benefits even if they don’t contribute, getting a free ride on the contributions of others. The usual way around the free rider problem is to make such investment mandatory for everyone through the mechanism of taxation. By contrast, investment in private goods is self-sustaining, with no state action needed. Individuals have a strong incentive to invest because only they gain the benefit. In addition, as a private good its effects are highly exclusive, benefiting some people at the expense of others and thus tending to increase social inequality.
Like the political and economic visions of schooling, the welfare vision carries the traits of its condition as a public good. Its scope is inclusive, its impact is egalitarian, and its sustainability depends heavily on state mandate. But it lacks a key advantage shared by the other two, whose benefits clearly flow to the population as a whole. Everyone benefits by being part of a polity in which citizens are capable, law abiding, and informed. Everyone benefits by being part of an economy in which workers contribute productively to the general prosperity.
In contrast, however, it’s less obvious that everyone benefits from transferring public resources to disadvantaged citizens in order to improve their quality of life. The word welfare carries a foul odor in American politics, redolent of laziness, bad behavior, and criminality. It’s so bad that in 1980 the federal government changed the name of the Department Health, Education, and Welfare to Health and Human Services just to get rid of the stigmatized term.
So one reason that the welfare function doesn’t jump to mind when you think of schools is that we really don’t want to associate the two. Don’t besmirch schooling by calling it welfare. Michael Katz caught this feeling in the opening sentences of his 2010 essay, “Public Education as Welfare,” which serves as a reference point for my own essay: “Welfare is the most despised public institution in America. Public education is the most iconic. To associate them with each other will strike most Americans as bizarre, even offensive.” But let’s give it a try anyway.
My own essay arises from the time when I’m writing it – the summer of 2020 during the early phases of Covid-19 pandemic. Like everyone else in the US, I watched in amazement this spring when schools suddenly shut down across the country and students started a new regime of online learning from home. It started me thinking about what schools mean to us, what they do for us.
Often it’s only when an institution goes missing that we come to recognize its value. After the Covid shutdown, parents, children, officials, and citizens discovered just what they lost when the kids came home to stay. You could hear voices around the country and around the globe pleading, “When are schools going to open again?”
I didn’t hear people talking much about the other two public goods views of schooling. There wasn’t a groundswell of opinion complaining about the absence of citizenship formation or the falloff of human capital production. Instead, there was a growing awareness of the various social welfare functions of schooling that were now suddenly gone. Here are a few, in no particular order.
Schools are the main source of child care for working parents. When schools close, someone needs to stay home to take care of the younger children. For parents with the kind of white collar jobs that allow them to work from home, this causes a major inconvenience as they try to juggle work and child care and online schooling. But for parents who can’t phone in their work, having to stay home with the kids is a huge financial sacrifice, and it’s even bigger for single parents in this category.
Schools are a key place for children to get healthy meals. In the U.S., about 30 million students receive free or discounted lunch (and often breakfast) at school every day. It’s so common that researchers use the proportion of “students on free or reduced lunch” as a measure of the poverty rate in individual schools. When schools close, these children go hungry. In response to this problem, a number of closed school systems have continued to prepare these meals for parents to pick up and take home with them.
Schools are crucial for the health of children. In the absence of universal health care in the U.S., schools have served as a frail substitute. They require all students to have vaccinations. They provide health education. And they have school nurses who can check for student ailments and make referrals.
Schools are especially important for dealing with the mental health of young people. Teachers and school psychologists can identify mental illness and serve as prompts for getting students treatment. Special education programs identify developmental disabilities in students and devise individualized plans for treating them.
Schools serve as oases for children who are abused at home. Educators are required by law to look out for signs of mental or physical abuse and to report these cases to authorities. When schools close, these children are trapped in abusive settings at home, which gives the lie to the idea of sheltering in place. For many students, the true shelter is the school itself. In the absence of teacher referrals, agencies reported a sharp drop-off in the reports of child abuse.
Schools are domains for relative safety for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods. For many kids, who live in settings with gangs and drugs and crime, getting to and from school is the most treacherous part of the day. Once inside the walls of the school, they are relatively free of physical threats. Closing school doors to students puts them at risk.
Schools are environments that are often healthier than their own homes. Students in wealthy neighborhoods may look on schools in poor neighborhoods as relatively shabby and depressing, but for many children the buildings have a degree of heat, light, cleanliness, and safety that they can’t find at home. These schools may not have swimming pools and tennis courts, but they also don’t have rats and refuse.
Schools may be the only institutional setting for many kids in which the professional norm is to serve the best interests of the child. We know that students can be harmed by schools. All it takes is a bully or a disparaging judgment. The core of the educator’s job is to foster growth, spur interest, increase knowledge, enhance skill, and promote development. Being cut off from such an environment for a long period of time is a major loss for any student, rich or poor.
Schools are one of the few places in American life where young people undergo a shared experience. This is especially true at the elementary level, where most children in a neighborhood attend the same school and undergo a relatively homogeneous curriculum. It’s less true in high school, where the tracked curriculum provides more divergent experiences. A key component of the shared experience is that it places you face-to-face with students who may be different from you. As we have found, when you turn schooling into online learning, you tend to exacerbate social differences, because students are isolated in disparate family contexts where there is a sharp divide in internet access.
Schools are where children socialize with each other. A key reason kids want to go to school is because that’s where their friends are. It’s where they make friends they otherwise would have never meet, learn to maintain these friendships, and learn how to manage conflicts. Humans are thoroughly social animals, who need interaction with others in order to grow and thrive. So being cooped up at home leaves everyone, but especially children, without a central component of human existence.
Schools are the primary public institution for overseeing the development of young children into healthy and capable adults. Families are the core private institution engaged in this process, but schools serve as the critical intermediary between family and the larger society. They’re the way our children learn now to live and engage with other people’s children, and they’re a key way that society seeks to ameliorate social differences that might impede children’s development, serving as what Mann called the “a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
These are some aspects of schooling that we take for granted but don’t think about very much. For policymakers, these they may be considered side effects of the school’s academic mission, but for many (maybe most) families they are a main effect. And the various social support roles that schools play are particularly critical in a country like the United States, where the absence of a robust social welfare system means that schools stand as the primary alternative. School’s absence made the heart grow fonder for it. We all become aware of just how much schools do for us.
Systems of universal public schooling did not arise in order to promote social welfare. During the last 200 years, in countries around the world, the impetus came from the kind of political rationale that Horace Mann so eloquently put forward. Public schools emerged as part of the process of creating nation states. Their function was to turn subjects of the crown into citizens of the nation, or, as Eugen Weber put it in the title of his wonderful book, to turn Peasants into Frenchmen. Schools took localized populations with regional dialects and traditional authority relations and helped affiliate these populations with an imagined community called France or the United States. They created a common language (in case of France, it was Parisian French), a shared sense of national membership, and a shared educational experience.
This is the origin story of public schooling. But once schools became institutionalized and the state’s existence grew relatively secure, they began to accumulate other functions, both private (gaining an edge in the competition for social position) and public (promoting economic growth and supporting social welfare). In different countries these functions took different forms, and the load the state placed on schooling varied considerably. The American case, as is so often true, was extreme.
The U.S. bet the farm on the public school. It was relatively early in establishing a system of publicly funded and governed schools across the country in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. But it was way ahead of European countries in its rapid upward expansion of the system. Universal enrollment moved quickly from primary school to grammar school to high school. By 1900, the average American teenager had completed eight years of schooling. This led to a massive surge in high school enrollments, which doubled every decade between 1890 and 1940. By 1951, 75 percent of 16-year olds were enrolled in high school compared to only 14 percent in the United Kingdom. In the three decades after the Second World War, the surge spilled over into colleges, with the rate of enrollment between 1950 and 1980 rising from 9 to 40 percent of the eligible population.
The US system had an indirect connection to welfare even before it started acting as a kind of social service agency. The short version of the story is this. In the second part of the nineteenth century, European countries like Disraeli’s United Kingdom and Bismarck’s Germany set up the framework for a welfare state, with pensions and other elements of a safety net for the working class. The U.S. chose not to take this route, which it largely deferred until the 1930s. Instead it put its money on schooling. The vision was to provide individuals with educational opportunities to get ahead on their own rather than to give them direct aid to improve their current quality of life. The idea was to focus on developing a promising future rather than on meeting current needs. People were supposed to educate their way out of poverty, climbing up the ladder with the help of state schooling. The fear was that provide direct relief for food, clothing, and shelter – the dreaded dole – would only stifle their incentive to get ahead. Better to stimulate the pursuit of future betterment rather to run the risk that people might get used to subsisting comfortably in the present.
By nature, schooling is a forward-looking enterprise. Its focus is on preparing students for their future roles as citizens, workers, and members of society rather than on helping them deal with their current living conditions. By setting up an educational state rather than a welfare state, the U.S. in effect chose to write off the parents, seen as a lost cause, and concentrate instead on providing opportunities to the children, seen as still salvageable.
In the twentieth century, spurred by the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, the U.S. developed the rudiments of a welfare state, with pensions and then health care for the elderly, temporary cash support and health care for the poor, and unemployment insurance for the worker. At the same time, schools began to deal with the problems arising from poverty that students brought with them to the classroom. This was propelled by a growing understanding that hungry, sick, and abused children are not going to able to take advantage of educational opportunities in order to attain a better life in the future. Schooling alone couldn’t provide the chance for schooling to succeed. Thus the introduction of free meals, the school nurse, de facto day care, and other social-work activities in the school.
The tale of the rise of the social welfare function of the American public school, therefore, is anything but a success story. Rather, it’s a story of one failure on top of another. First is the failure to deal directly with social inequality in American life, when instead we chose to defer the intervention to the future by focusing on educating children while ignoring their parents. Second, when poverty kept interfering with the schooling process, we introduced rudimentary welfare programs into the school in order give students a better chance, while still leaving poor parents to their own devices.
As with the American welfare system in general, school welfare is not much but it’s better than nothing. Carrying on the pattern set in the nineteenth century, we are still shirking responsibility for dealing directly with poverty through the political system by opposing universal health care and a strong safety net. Instead, we continue to put our money on schooling as the answer when the real solution lies elsewhere. Until we decide to implement that solution, however, schooling is all we’ve got.
In the meantime, schools serve as the wobbly but indispensable balance wheel of American social life. Too bad it took a global pandemic to get us to realize what we lose when schools close down.