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Should the School be a Public or Private Program?

Photo credit: Sandra Steinbrecher

Caption: Anthony Overton school was closed in 2013. Now a private building, and while it waits for its redevelopment, it provides a space for the community to come together.

Paola Aguirre Serrano

As I was reflecting on this question, it led me to this other one: is education a fundamental human right or a privilege? Should the quality of our education be dictated by the places where we live in? As we continue to see our education systems follow and being shaped by the values of capitalism, the notion of pub-lic education becomes an endangered species. In my experience as a designer in a city such as Chicago, it has been interesting to learn how the education sys-tem in the U.S. has established ways to reinforce segregation of class and race by using funding and management mechanisms. To illustrate this is important to understand two main distinct features of the education system in most U.S. cities. Firstly, access to education is dictated by school districts where the tax income from the properties surrounding schools are allocated into the school’s budget. Poor or wealthy neighborhoods fund their own local schools. Geog-raphy defines quality of education, and education becomes then a real estate pursuit. Secondly, public-private education models such as “charter schools” (schools built and operated with public funding and managed privately), have utilized significant public resources for decades overwhelming the network of schools and without a clear accountability or community evaluation system. The consequence of these two policies has impacted our communities in un-precedented ways. In 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools across 25 neighborhoods due to under enrollment, low performance and budget cuts. Where the most infrastructure, resources and investment is needed, that’s where these closed schools were located. 

Schools should be public, but a different kind of public. I think the concept of the public needs to be reclaimed, redefined and reinvented. The public does not mean government, and our government systems are not the only representa-tives of the public. The public is our communities. Public schools should be community schools protected, overseen and enjoyed by the people who care the most about them – their neighbors, their staff, their students. Our schools should be The People’s Schools. 

Paola Aguirre Serrano is founder of BORDERLESS, Chicago-based collaborative city design and research practice. Paola focuses on multidisciplinary exchange, city systems integration and participatory civic processes focused on social equity by leveraging her experience working with public, civic and private organizations in Mexico and the United States. Also an educator, Paola has taught at Archeworks, Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Paola received a M. of Architecture in Urban Design from the Harvard School of Design.

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