Does 'Public' Mean 'Good'?

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As the debate over school choice heats up once again, in the halls of Congress and in many state capitals, a favorite gambit of defenders of the status quo is to damn such changes as "sure to undermine public education" or "bad for the public schools."

They always stress the word "public," for that adjective is believed to carry moral weight and political suasion. It is meant to evoke patriotism and decency, Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, goodness, virtue, and the American way. If "public" education is inherently good, it follows that anything apt to erode it must be bad.

The "choice" schemes that get tarred with this brush are usually designed to help poor and middle-class children attend non-government schools when their parents judge that this would result in better education. Or greater safety. Sounder values. Whatever.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander was recently savaged by the American Federation of Teachers' president Albert Shanker for suggesting that any school willing to embrace high standards, to enroll children on a nondiscriminatory basis, and to be held accountable for its results, might reasonably be deemed "public," no matter who owns and operates it. Mr. Shanker called this notion "Orwellian" and warned of schools "established by the likes of David Duke."

Other examples abound. We heard some on the floor of the U.S. Senate when Orrin Hatch sought to overturn the Kennedy bill's ban on private schools' participation in a new federal choice demonstration. But such talk is not confined to Washington. A "poison pill" for the public schools is how California's proposed voucher plan is described by Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction. Some of his allies use terms like "fraud" and "evil" when discussing that initiative.

When Milwaukee's mayor, John Norquist, suggested replacing failed urban schools with a "choice or voucher system," he was sharply attacked by the press and the education establishment for disloyalty to public education. And in the closing arguments of a recent nationally-televised mock "trial" on whether the public schools are irreparably flawed, the Harvard law professor assigned to defend them asserted solemnly that our "traditions and ideals of quality public education" are responsible for the nation's evolution from a "third rate" country to a "great power." (Viewers, it seem, were not entirely persuaded. In the telephone tally that followed the show, 53 percent of callers agreed with the other attorney that the public schools are "beyond repair.")

What is it about this word "public" when it comes to schooling, and does the same moral and political alchemy occur when we meld that adjective with other nouns? Does "public" always wear a halo? Try some other combinations:

  • Public welfare: Summons images of sloth, dependency, fraud, and irresponsibility. Anything but virtue.

  • Public transportation: How you get around if you don't have a car, a bicycle, strong legs, or cab fare. Often unsafe, dirty, and unreliable.

  • Public hospitals: Where you go if, besides ailing, you're destitute. They cost the taxpayer a pretty penny and often provide mediocre care.

  • Public housing: Such bad news that virtually none of it has been built in decades. The corridors reek, you take your life in your hands on the elevator, and the maintenance people are never around when the pipes burst.

  • Public radio and television: Sources of boring shows, politicized documentaries, and leaks by the likes of Nina Totenberg.

  • Public parks, beaches, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf courses: Better than none.

  • Public safety: Grand idea, honored mainly in the breach.

When people talk about it, watch for rising crime rates, menacing streets, and bad guys who go unpunished. Hence the surge in private security services, bodyguards, etc.

  • Public colleges and universities: Often O.K., sometimes fine, but wouldn't you rather send your kid to Princeton?

  • Public relations: Puts a nice face on bad situations and tries to persuade you of things that aren't entirely true.

  • Public restrooms: Yuck.

The main exceptions that come to mind, places that may be enhanced (at least not diminished) by the adjective, are public libraries and--maybe--"public" utilities. As for "public" policy, it's largely responsible for all the preceding.

There are, to be sure, some domains where the only sensible way to get something done is through a single, government operated system. The armed forces. Highways. Printing money. Yellowstone National Park. These enterprises, however, have distinctive features: We seldom use the word "public" when describing them. There are fewer of them today than in the past, since many fields that once belonged to government monopolies-mail delivery, space satellites, trash collection, etc.--have privatized and diversified. Where this has occurred, moreover, the private versions usually operate more efficiently and reliably.

Elementary-secondary education is diversified, too, but not very. Its private sector consists of 27,000 schools, yet they enroll just 11 percent of all pupils. The hot policy issue, of course, is whether those numbers should be encouraged to grow. Private schools, by many measures, do a better job than government run schools at imparting skills, knowledge, values, and character to their students. (That's not to say they do a good enough job!) They operate at lower per-pupil costs. And the vast majority of them welcome anyone who knocks on their door. They are far more open to poor and minority youngsters than the "public" schools of Beverly Hills, Chappaqua, Wellesley, Evanston, and hundreds of other communities.

How, then, has "public" education kept its halo of moral superiority? Mostly, I think, through nostalgia, wishful thinking, and shrewd public relations (see above). We want to believe that today's tax-supported schools are bastions of democracy and learning. That wish, however, has left us vulnerable to establishment propaganda and has helped perpetuators of the status quo lay claim to the adjective. Today they are squeezing every possible drop of political advantage from it, mostly by depicting alternatives to public schools as elitist and discriminatory.

The truth is that the emperor we know as public schooling, despite an expensive wardrobe, has worn his present garments so long that most of them need cleaning if not replacing. Our solemn obligation is not to dress him up in new finery, however, but to see that American children-all of them--get access to a world-class education, no matter who provides it. Educating the public is a part of the social contract; institutions called public schools are not. Occasionally we do well to recall that it's the consumers, not the suppliers, for whose benefit we have an education system. Most Americans agree that we need a quality revolution in that system. We're a lot more likely to get one, however, if we banish from this domain--as we've done from so many others-the shibboleth that goodness and legitimacy attach only to institutions that bear the "public" label.

Vol. 11, Issue 21, Page 30

Published in Print: February 12, 1992, as Does 'Public' Mean 'Good'?
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