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What Are Public Schools For?

Are schools just about learning facts? Should they help students with problems outside school? Should they instill common values?

Last month, four state senators introduced a bill that would set a minimum student-to-counselor ratio in Minnesota schools.

Minnesota currently has one licensed counselor for every 771 students—one of the highest ratios in the nation, according to the American School Counselor Association. During a Minnesota Public Radio interview last week, a Roseville counselor and former DFL legislator said people in these positions help students with problems ranging from homelessness to family issues.

At first blush, schools have changed substantially since the era when school days focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. In addition to ensuring students know the curriculum, schools act as a social safety net for students experiencing problems outside of school, provide cultural and athletic experiences and introduce students to changing societal expectations.

Just this month, Patch readers debated whether school districts should include gay marriage in their curriculum. And educators themselves have been struggling to find their proper role when students bully each other outside of school. It’s clear that schools are no longer just about the facts inside a textbook.

But digging deeper, schools have never really been about just the facts. Horace Mann—the 19th Century founder of public education in the United States—believed schools had an important role to play in building character, instilling obedience to authority and “equaliz[ing] the conditions of man.”

Meanwhile, the Pledge of Allegiance and American history classes are at least partly about instilling a sense of common heritage or purpose—hardly a “just the facts, ma’am,” approach.

Even if we did decide to focus exclusively on facts and skills, there would be the question of which facts and skills to focus on. Are we teaching students vocational skills to prepare them for 21st Century workplaces? Are we teaching them critical thinking skills to navigate the hazards of life? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

Patch wants to know what you think public schools are for. What do you expect as a taxpayer? What do you expect as a parent? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Amy Paddock March 26, 2013 at 07:59 PM
I do like public school system for the most part. People who believe in making school system private want to go back to the Days before there was an "America". History lesson: The first public school in America was established by settlers in 1635
yomammy March 27, 2013 at 12:02 PM
Note to above: Public school is most certainly not "free"... On the other hand, I dont want some full-blown idiot parent being required to teach their own kids either--- the beginning of the movie "Idiacroacy" comes to mind...
David F March 27, 2013 at 12:58 PM
I am not sure why these discussions become so inflammatory. Certainly wouldn't show my children these posts. Not sure why this discussion deteriorated into why there should be no public schools. Please don't flame me with hateful rhetoric.
Mike B. March 27, 2013 at 01:09 PM
There is nothing "hateful" about discussing the proper role of "public" education, and whether government has a role in education. There are many solid arguments in favor of privatizing education to the greatest extent possible. Of course, the teachers' union fight every attempt to improve the educational environment for our children. It's a shame that some, including the above poster, seem personally offended when someone disagrees with their viewpoint.
yomammy March 27, 2013 at 01:47 PM
I just disagree with the union because they think the only way to make ANYTHING better is to throw more money at it....

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