Education Opinion

What Is ‘Public’ About Public Education?

By Rick Hess — January 08, 2003 8 min read
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Rethinking the boundaries distinguishing the public and private in education

What is “public” about public schooling? That question currently looms over the national conversation about school reform. In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman decision, the provisions of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 that mandate public-choice options for children in low-performing schools, and the proliferation of charter schooling and tuition-tax-credit programs, it is time for educators and policymakers to rethink the boundaries distinguishing the public and private in education. The hard-and-fast lines we have drawn between “public” and “private” are a lot blurrier and a lot less useful than we pretend.

Defenders of the status quo in education routinely label certain proposed reforms—including tax credits, voucher programs, for- profit education management organizations (or EMOs), and charter schooling— as “anti-public education,” often to great effect. This line has increasingly become a rhetorical device that stifles thoughtful discussion about how to balance the communal, familial, and national interests in improving schooling for all children. Amid widespread support for charter schooling and the Supreme Court’s ruling that voucher programs pass constitutional muster, there is growing recognition that educators may be able to serve public purposes and cultivate civic virtues in places other than conventional state-run schools.

When we say “public school,” we generally mean state-sponsored schools. In common usage, however, the phrase “public schooling” implies a lot more, resonating with vague notions of legitimacy, nondiscrimination, and shared values. We forget that these qualities are not implicit in government-run schools, a fact readily illustrated by district schools too often characterized by inequitable funding or the disproportionate assignment of minority students to special education.

Defenders of the status quo are able to effectively attack certain reforms as “anti-public education” because Americans believe that the public has a legitimate responsibility to ensure that all children receive an adequate education. Even libertarians like John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman concede there is some “public good” component to education and have consequently argued for state funding and/or monitoring of educational mastery. However, the divisions emerge when we consider how to act upon these shared purposes.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public": We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches. None of these is the “right” way to frame the question, and each poses particular challenges, but considering each of them helps illuminate the problem with the prevailing rhetoric. In particular, we see that the outcome approach deserves significantly more consideration as a guide for policy than it conventionally receives.

Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

There are two particular problems with the procedural characterization. First, how hands-on must the government be for us to regard a service as publicly provided? NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Education, and nearly every other state, federal, and local government agency contract with for-profit firms to support, provide, and evaluate service delivery. Yet we still tend to regard the services as “public” because they were initiated in response to a public directive. It is not clear when we believe that government-directed activity ceases to be public. For instance, if a for-profit voucher school operates in accord with state-directed educational purposes, ought it be regarded as analogous to a for-profit textbook maker or consultant who provides services to a conventional school?

How hands-on must the government be for us to regard a service as publicly provided?

Moreover, the procedural approach makes no allowance for the possibility that public agencies may make decisions that are discriminatory, repressive, or otherwise fail to serve the public interest, as in the case of segregated schools. It’s not clear why we ought to be comforted by the fact that public officials are responsible, or why we ought not consider whether “nonpublic” schools may help redress such injuries.

A second approach to defining “public” focuses on inputs. By this metric, any activity that involves government funds is public because it involves the expenditure of tax dollars. However, this is a more nebulous distinction than we sometimes suppose. For instance, schools in the Milwaukee voucher program receive Wisconsin tax dollars. Does this mean that voucher schools ought to be regarded as de facto public schools? Similarly, Wisconsin dairy farmers receive federal subsidies. Does this make them public enterprises?

A particular complication is the often-unrecognized fact that many traditional public schools charge families money. For instance, this year, the families of more than 2,300 Indiana students are paying as much as $6,000 to enroll their children in another district’s public school. Public schools routinely charge fees of families that participate in interdistrict public-choice plans or who have a child participating in extracurricular or academic activities. Do these nontax revenues mean the schools are no longer “public,” or are less public than schools without such fees?

Tax credits may further blur the line between public and private revenue. Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida have adopted tax-credit plans that permit taxpayers to direct public tax dollars to scholarships (vouchers) that fund private school tuition for low-income children. Is this money “public”?

A third approach focuses on whether organizations pursue a public purpose, regardless of the monitoring agent or the revenue sources. For instance, private charities such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army seek to advance public ends by working to alleviate hunger, illiteracy, and other ills. These efforts are “public” in that they serve the broader community, even though they are conducted by private individuals unaccountable to formal public bodies.

Meanwhile, traditional public schools increasingly use self-interested vendors to provide meals, operate buses, and even deliver educational services.

While public schools have always dealt with for-profit providers—to purchase teaching supplies or to construct facilities—new proposals for privatization bring profit-seeking vendors closer to the teaching and learning core. In some cases, they permit vendors to assume control of that core. For instance, for-profit companies such as Edison Schools Inc. are now managing scores of traditional public schools across the nation. Does this make these schools somehow less “public”? By what metric should we determine whether these schools are more or less “public” than local nonprofit Roman Catholic schools?

Children would be better served if we focused more on what we wish schools to accomplish and how to achieve those goals, and less on jostling to determine who is on the side of “public education.” There are five sets of questions that can help us focus on the concerns that matter most.

First, what goals are we pursuing? Why do we want children to attend schools? To what extent do we want to insist upon a common educational purpose for all children? Many current conflicts are due to fundamental disagreement about what schools should do; it is utopian to imagine that we will ever all agree precisely on what the public purposes of schooling ought to be. Children will be better served if we debate these differences openly rather than trying to finesse them by creating institutional structures that are overburdened by a multitude of covert compromises.

Second, how should we apportion responsibility for each child’s education between the state and the family? There can be fundamental tensions between familial rights and the claims of the state. Some choice models dramatically tilt this balance in favor of the parent, while others propose a much more measured shift.

Third, who should be permitted to provide schooling? How actively should the state regulate who is permitted to offer schooling? Should profit-seeking individuals and firms be permitted to run schools or to manage schools for others?

Children would be better served if we focused more on what we wish schools to accomplish and how to achieve those goals, and less on jostling to determine who is on the side of ‘public education.’

Fourth, what obligations should schools have to ensure opportunities exist for all students? Are schools obliged to treat all students equally—regardless of aptitude or interest—or are they permitted to enroll and/or sort students as they deem educationally appropriate? How can we find middle ground on this question?

Finally, what components of schooling should we consider to be public? There is relatively little opposition to schools’ buying textbooks and bus tires from profit-seeking vendors, or hiring profit-seeking consultants to teach workshops for teachers. Meanwhile, there is fierce opposition to bringing profit-seeking vendors into the core functions of teaching and learning. Is everything that happens in a school building a “public service”? If not, how do we distinguish those activities that are?

Focusing on these questions will silence some of the easy claims and broad generalizations that get made, and encourage a more reflective and productive discourse. We may find that opposite sides are not as far apart as they sometimes imagine, once we move past superficial slogans and focus the conversation on how to best serve all of America’s children.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, and the author, most recently, of Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems (Brookings Institution Press, 2002). This essay is adapted by the author from “Making Sense of the ‘Public’ in Public Education,” published by the Progressive Policy Institute and available at www.ppionline.org.


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