School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Private Market at the Heart of Public Education

By James E. Ryan — March 23, 2016 3 min read
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A common criticism of education reform efforts, often waged with vigor against school choice plans that involve charter schools or vouchers, is that they will result in the privatization of public education. (For some recent examples, see this Washington Post piece, this example from Milwaukee, and this one from Denver. What “privatization” means is not always specified, but it is typically meant to refer to private interests controlling public education. (See this definition from the NEA.)

In a crucial way, however, our public education system is already market-based, and from this perspective seems more private than public.

To see what I mean, consider what makes public schools public. You might say governance by elected officials and school boards. You might also point to funding, which comes from a mixture of local property taxes, state funding, and a relatively modest amount of federal funding. And you might also point to the fact that public schools are free of charge, if you ignore the various fees imposed for athletics, band, field trips, and other activities. All of those features are a part of our public school system and they do indeed render it public, from one perspective.

But notice that public schools are not public in the same sense that parks are public. Schools are not open to anyone and everyone who signs up or happens to show up on a particular day. Instead, access is generally restricted to those who live in the school district and in a particular attendance zone within that district. That access comes with a price tag, and in some places a very hefty price tag: housing costs.

In a very real way, access to “public” schools is governed by the private market--the housing market. The market at the heart of public education can be easy to miss, because tuition is not being charged, but it is indeed the private market that controls access to public schools. If a family cannot afford or obtain housing in a particular district or attendance zone, access to those schools is typically denied. Given the continued reliance on local property taxes to fund schools, moreover, the more expensive the housing market, the more local funding is available for local schools. From this perspective, the local portion of school funding seems akin to the dues charged to join a private club, and not surprisingly some clubs are nicer and more expensive to join than others. Many of the inequalities we see among public schools are, in this sense, also market driven, insofar as they reflect inequalities in the housing market.

So here’s the key question: When it comes to access, can we really say we have a truly public system of education? I grew up in a blue-collar town in northern New Jersey, and the neighboring town, an affluent suburb, had a town pool. We did not. To those who lived in that town, I’m sure it seemed public. But to me, it seemed just as a private as a pool at a country club. I never really thought about it at the time, but I’m sure the neighboring schools seemed just as out of reach to my parents as the pool seemed to me.

Access, of course, is not the only characteristic of a school system, nor should it be the only feature used to determine whether a system is public or private. The market-based system of access does illustrate, however, that public and private are not binary concepts but instead exist along a spectrum. Public schools are not at either end of that spectrum, which should at least complicate conversations about whether a particular reform or another will “privatize” public education.

Consider, again, school choice. On the one hand, school choice would introduce more market-based elements into the public education system, as choice is a key feature of markets. If school choice includes privately governed schools, that, too, would introduce more private features into the public system--though recall from my previous blog that “public” pre-K programs rely heavily on private providers. But to the extent school choice breaks the link between the private housing market and school access, school choice may actually make the system more public, not less, at least insofar as access is concerned. So it may well be that the only correct answer to the question of whether school choice will make education systems more or less public is this: Yes.

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The opinions expressed in Making the Case: Key Questions in Education Debates are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.