Gary K. Clabaugh Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Remember Oscar Wilde’s classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray? As an increasingly cruel and wicked Dorian remains unnaturally young and handsome, his portrait implacably registers the progression of his degeneration. Tormented by this reflection of his actual self, Dorian vainly attempts to destroy the evidence of his growing wickedness by slashing at his portrait — with disastrous results for himself. 

Like Dorion’s picture, mirrors reflect reality with remorseless acccuracy. Do we work out and watch what we eat? There it is in the mirror, six-pack, taut muscles, and all. But if we sit on our duff and gobble Twinkies, the consequences also are reflected with implacable exactitude. And our public schools provide a similarly accurate mirror image of America. What is right about our public schools is generally right about us. But, generally, what’s is wrong with them is wrong with us as well.

For example, our inner city and rural poverty public schools vividly reflect the intense and immoral degree of inequality that is one of America’s least handsome attributes. The U.S. has the most uneven distribution of wealth of any major industrialized nation in the world. In fact the share of wealth owned by the top 0.1% almost equals the wealth of the bottom 90%. This tiny fraction of Americans dominate our economy and, through campaign contributions, special interest lobbying, and participation in policy planning, run our government and write the rules. Rules that end up favoring them at the expense of the rest of us. And as these unconscionably rich individuals get richer, the rest of us are left further and further behind.

This is how too many of America’s children end up living in poverty, in shattered and unsafe neighborhoods. And in the end the social consequences of this, every jot and tittle of it, is reflected in impoverished inner city and rural classrooms where educators struggle to deal with soul destroying social conditions, inadequate resources and criticism from the very politicians who foster this mess to begin with.

Not surprisingly, those who benefit most from economic and social inequities, preposterously overpaid corporate CEO’s for example, eagerly scapegoat public schooling. Why? To dodge responsibility for the social consequences of their own greedy excess. They bash teachers, issue bromides about the need for educators to raise their expectations, caution against “throwing money” at school problems, and emphasize the “need” to “break the public school monopoly.”

Stinking red herrings draw the most hounds; so these “reformers” lay down false scents by declaring that: test scores are falling, which is false;  dropout rates are increasing, when they aren’t; more money for schooling makes no difference, when it does; and saying that illiteracy is rising, when it isn’t. 

If these enemies dismantle our public schools they will also smash America’s reflection into such tiny fragments we might never truly see ourselves again. And once that is accomplished, even more profane developments are possible. One can’t help but wonder, do those who want to dismantle public education have the same motivation as Dorian Grey. Are they slashing at public schooling in order to destroy a reflection that reveals the ever increasing ugliness of their sins.