Want School Districts to Do Less? Build Better Systems to Support Children and Families.

via U.S. Department of Education Flickr

My colleague Andrew Rotherham has a great piece up at U.S. News & World Report arguing that our current educational system ask school districts to shoulder far too many operational and other responsibilities, which prevents them from focusing on their core work of delivering quality teaching and learning. I agree!

But, I would add that this is the entirely natural and predictable result of our nation’s lack of much more robust systems to support children and families. As I’ve written previously, public education is one of the few public services that national consensus agrees children deserve. As a result we don’t have strong, universal systems to provide other supports — such as childcare or support for new parents— that children and families need. Because the public education system is one of the few public services that touches most children and families, there is a strong temptation to ask that system to take on important unmet child and family needs that are ultimately outside its core mission. 

A better alternative would be to develop stronger systems, outside of the public education system, to address the holistic child and family needs that public education systems weren’t designed to address. That doesn’t mean the government needs to or should provide those services. Rather, it means thinking about how public policies, funding, and systems can help foster a rich network of civic, community, and faith-based organizations and individuals capable of supporting parents and families in a deeply personal way. It also means thinking about how public policies and funding can address gaps and inequities in how these supports are currently distributed and provide overarching systems and infrastructure to help families navigate the network of support organizations and organizations themselves. The starting point for that, of course, would be public recognition that we as a society have obligations to support children and families beyond just schooling. Then we’d need some sort of consensus on the types of supports and resources that all families and children, especially high-need ones, should have access to.

That’s a really heavy lift in our currently polarized political debate. But it’s not an exclusively liberal goal. Yes, we need the best of liberal thinking on what children and families need and deserve. But we also need conservative thinkers like Yuval Levin and Ross Douthat who have written about the role of civic, community, and faith-based organizations in addressing the pressing challenges facing our country. We also need to acknowledge that those groups are most effective when networked together in ways that are navigable for the people who need them most.