Urban planning community

  • Public Goes Private

    By Perry Norton FAICP

    This essay is allegorical, and rife with broad sweeping generalities. That said, and humbly begging your pardon, let us proceed.

    All across the country concerned people are experimenting with converting public schools into private schools. Charter schools, magnet schools, vouchers. There is the perception that as public institutions the schools have become so mired in red tape of their own making that they are no longer capable of "teaching".

    In a sense, these efforts are something like taking just the hands of the watch to the watch repair shop, saying that "they don't point to the right time." Read on.

    In the early history of this country, schools, hospitals, orphanages, poor houses, libraries - these were all private. They were funded by the rich, from the goodness of their hearts and the guilt in their heads - at a time when there were two economic classes: the rich and the poor. The poor outnumbered the rich, of course, but the rich had all the money.

    Gradually through the years, with the blood and sweat of labor, and the union and grange movements, the U.S. became notable among nations as one dominated by the middle class. Though there were still many rich people, they couldn't, even Carnegie, build enough new libraries to keep up with the exploding population. So the middle class (the majority by far) developed the Public Sector, supported by fees and taxes, to provide for schools, hospitals, and all caring things, which had heretofore been provided by the largesse of the rich.

    And the public sector grew. In time we had public schools that were the envy of the world. Our hospitals reached farther and deeper into the intricacies of human care. We created systems of aid to help those in need of it. We built thousands of miles of streets and highways, and guaranteed loans for young people for their education and for their first homes.

    In recent years, however, the middle class has become a fluid class-some rising in economic ranks, cheered on politically as symbols of our dream; many more, however, painfully and slowly inching down the ladder, seeing their savings decline, wondering how, if at all, they will be able to help their children get through college.

    Wondering, more poignantly, how to provide for their own declining years without becoming a burden. And wondering not at all about day care centers, or nursery schools, or shelters for battered people, or way stations for those on the way back from dark pasts.

    Now, alas, the same middle class which built the Public Sector is unable to sustain it. Those who have risen don't yet see the problem- indeed they deny its existence, because it is much too threatening. What they've got they want to keep because they've seen their neighbors going the other economic way.

    So we come back, to Square One. Will those who have, once again reach out to those who have not? Maybe. Maybe they will contribute, privately, to the private fund drives for our schools, and to those in need, wherever and of whatever kind. And maybe we will start all over again. Maybe. Maybe.

    "Public Goes Private" was originally published on Cyburbia on September 1, 1996.