The Purpose of Schools

Some $100 billion dollars flowed into public education from the stimulus bill.  Now, $5 billion dollars in discretionary funds is being used by the DoE to try to leverage “reform”   Andy Smarick at EducationNext tells us all about why the $100 billion wasn’t used for reform, and why this $5 billion might not be either.

Here’s what I consider to be the essential quote from the essay:

[T]here’s considerable daylight between a reform-oriented policy and its faithful implementation.

My take on this: the problem with educational reform is that it presumes that the schools exist in order to educate students.   This is much like presuming that parents exist in order to care for their children.   Now I don’t want to get to deep into difficult teleological terrain — this is an education blog, not a philosophy blog — but there’s a difference between “parents exist and should take care of their children” and “parents exist in order to take care of their children.”

The fact is that a parent’s existence is prior — both logically and temporally — to their obligation to their children.   The parent will exist (or not) somewhat independently of the existence of the child.

Likewise, schools have an existence apart from their students.  You could eliminate the students entirely, and the schools would still be there and paychecks would still go out.  If all students disappeared, someone would have to do something else in order to shut down the schools.  (And shut down they probably would be… for if there were no students, the taxpayers would be loathe to spend money on nothing, we might presume.)

There is thus a difference between the purpose of schools and the purpose of the taxpayer decision to fund them.  Schools don’t exist for their students — institutionally they exist, like almost everything else, for themselves.  We should not be surprised that the first $100 billion went to self-preservation, not for the benefit of students, and we should not be surprised if the next $5 billion goes in much the same direction.


  1. Well Micheal, that’s two of us who’ve noticed that the public education system exists for purposes only tangentially related to education and is not unoften distinctly uninterested in education.

    It’s a small beginning but from small acorns….

  2. SuperSub says:

    You can add onto your observations Michael that even many parents don’t see the purpose of school as educating their children. Instead, the schools serve as a diploma factory or a babysitting service.

  3. In the book and movie The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, the owner of a Forest Lawnesque Cemetery, when he finds out that the land on which the cemetery is build is worth a fortune screams, “I do I get these stiffs off of my property.” He then devises a scheme to have burials in space by rocketing the bodies up there. I have often shared your cynical belief that schools are about everything but education- that’s the problem. At, we are going to change that. Check out the site and see if you would like to be part of a virtual commons for accountable public education reform. Teachers should be the most optimistic people in our society, not the most cynical and pessimistic as they presently and justifiably are.

  4. Explain why $100b of ‘stimulus’ went to public schools for reform or anything else?


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