“The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1948. Many of my friends would swear by such words even today.
Are government run institutions such as the public school really the best way for society to preserve its common destiny? I dwelt on that question as I was bumping and swaying along the ancient road bed that Amtrak travels each day on its way from Boston to New York. I decided to give Amtrak every benefit of the doubt. The state of the road bed might be excused because it had been inherited from privately run railroads when the federal government formed Amtrak. The dirt, stink and general ugliness of New York’s Pennsylvania station should not be attributed to federally-owned and operated Amtrak, as the station’s management is the responsibility of New York City and Boston’s station is both clean and well appointed.
But when an overweight man tumbled backward to the floor as the train slammed to a stop outside of New Haven, placing himself seriously at risk, I wondered why the conductor had not warned passengers that sudden stops could happen at any time or why adequate straps passengers could cling to were not provided throughout the car. No airline would be allowed to invite passengers to wander unaided precisely when the risk of falling is the greatest. After all, the Boston-New York run is the elite, profitable side of Amtrak. When another man missed his stop in Providence—the train could not have stopped for more than 30 seconds—I realized that all but the most agile passengers must be out of their seats as a train is coming to a stop, if they are not to run the risk of being similarly inconvenienced.
My mind wandered further—where are the seat belts? Where are the signs insisting that we wear them unless moving about the train?
If publicly owned trains were regulated in the same way as privately owned airlines, safety fixes would follow disasters. But not, apparently, with Amtrak, despite the numbers of injuries and deaths suffered by passengers over the years.
With time to kill, my mind wandered still further: In a democracy, perhaps it is the private sector, not the government agency, which is most carefully watched. It is Goldman Sachs that gets investigated, not Fannie Mae.
Finally, thoughts then turned to public schools and charter schools. What happens to public schools when disasters strike? The Obama Administration is talking about turnarounds, but no one ever commands a shut down. Yet 10 percent of all charters have disappeared.
Could well-regulated charter schools be a better symbol of our democracy than the public school? Before I could answer that question, it was time to grab my bag, stumble to the door, and jump off the train.