There has always been considerable controversy over the "bottom line" purpose of public education. Narrow interpretations of promoting literacy for the sake of an educated citizenry have been challenged by those who believe the purpose of such a vital public service must also demonstrate vocational or socialization value. For the last seventy five years receiving public education has been related to the ideas of getting a good job and becoming (or staying) a good American. The concept of universal access into post secondary education following world war two was also an employment and resocialization idea.
Of course, what a good public education meant in terms of curriculum content and instructional strategies often reflected the controversy over purpose. Literacy may mean enough schooling to be able to "read the Bible and know the laws of the state" as it was in l820-l850's America. It might mean Great Books content. On the other hand, the content of public education has also been imagined as social adjustment or life skills and values clarification. In the l990's curriculum may expect to have a "school-to-work" orientation. Although management theory and educational managers have attempted to retain the neutrality of operating any form of "service delivery system" purposes do shape the organizational roles. Implementation may be separated from policy intent in who decides, but the classification of a child as a "client" or a "person" (or better still, "victim") depends upon the perception of the operating context where managing takes place.
One consistent value of public education has been that it was to contribute to the well being of all children. All children can learn and each child deserves an equal opportunity to access the benefits of becoming educated have been bedrock expectations. Since the early l960's the "hardest cases" of the all children expectations have dominated public education as a service. While civil rights focused upon the individual differentiated by discrimination or disablement a parallel expectation was that becoming educated could bring people out of poverty and into the economic middle class. As a public policy, the Great Society effort of the l960's assumed that individuals could "bootstrap" out of poverty with schooling and that whole classes of economically disadvantaged citizens could also be helped as the "rising tide lifts all boats."
The economic benefit to public schooling justified a federal role at a time that "health, education and welfare" were perceived as an organizational entity. The Great Society initiative to "target" resources for disadvantaged individuals ( e.g., reading readiness for preschool children to have a headstart) and groups ( e.g., inner city, non white minorities) assumed that schools were the main contributor to being educated. Enough good education could impact on individuals and groups that were the "persistent poor (intergenerational) and break the endless cycle of poverty for some in American society. The logic was ideological belief and the presupposition of advocacy as a public policy stance.
Arguments from research that asserted the impact of efforts to break the cycle of poverty failed (and that schooling made little or no difference) went to the heart of compensatory education. The debate split between those who determined the "delivery system" was at fault and those who used the information to argue that it was hopeless to assume that education could help those in persistent poverty.
The mainstream discussion has been about schools as a questionable organization to deliver or implement resources to the point of need. Thorough the veil of concern about federal government "big brother" was the larger questions of inefficiency and non accountability. For example, how federal money got to the school (direct allocation or "flow-through" State Education Departments) was assumed to a minor logistical issue of implementation. The struggle for control within the public education "family of governments" resulted in the Richard Nixon era of New Federalism "revenue sharing" with states and municipal governments and a separate Department of Education in the Jimmy Carter era.
The questions of fundamental purpose and linkage between schooling and economic well being disappeared into organizational capacity questions at all levels of education government. It might be argued that the initial Reagan era "nation at risk" challenge had tones of questioning purpose but the policy focus was on "tinkering" and "fine-tuning" the implementation of organizational allocations. Shifting from categorical titles to block grants for local school governments was an issue of organizational adjustment. Demands for the elimination of the Department of Education were, in real effect, simple bully pulpit posturing. By the l980's calls for cooperative federalism or "getting federal government out of the education business altogether" were organizational debates.
Today, the faint whispers of dreams about breaking the cycle of persistent poverty are still heard in "school linked services" discussions. Educators are still concerned about the ethical implications of blaming the victim, but the predominant discussion is on the mechanics of "authentic assessment" or the "gridlock" of organizational arrangements necessary to deliver the schooling service. When the latter dominate discussion the tendency is to give the ethics of victimization a second class priority.