Standards Opinion

The ‘Public’ Character of Public Schools

By Leo Casey — November 06, 2014 5 min read
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Leo Casey replies again today to Deborah Meier.


The defense of public education is our primary task. If we fail at that task, we put at grave risk all else that we value in American education. So we need to build a coalition, as broad and as deep as possible, to defend public education. On these points, we are agreed.

But both points lead to further questions: What exactly is this public education that we are defending? Who do we envision as the constituent parts of this coalition that could successfully defend it?

Public education must not be understood narrowly as schools that are governed and managed by a legally constituted school district. That static and limited definition actually obscures what is at stake in the defense of public education. At the core of public education is the idea that education is a public good, the means that a democratic people employ to achieve vital common ends. The ends that education produces—socialization and enculturation; the skills of democratic citizenship such as critical thinking and historical understanding; the self-reflection and self-direction that leads to a purposeful life; and a workforce prepared for the global knowledge economy—are not commodities that are readily bought and sold on a market. They are goods best secured and provided by a public authority, as a part of “the commons” of a democratic society.

There are vital dimensions of public education that follow logically from this idea that education is a public good. To cite just the most basic: Public schools should be financed through public taxpayer funds which are equitably distributed among all schools. They should be operated as a public trust, on a not-for-profit basis. Public schools should have clear avenues for teacher voice, family voice, and community voice in important decisionmaking; should be governed openly and transparently; and should be ultimately accountable to the public through elected officials. They should have organic relationships to the public, the communities they serve. Public schools should teach all children of all races and socioeconomic classes, especially those students with the greatest need. And public schools should have as a primary purpose education into democratic citizenship. When these dimensions are fulfilled, a school is “public” not only in form, but in content; not only in name, but in practice.

Seen in this light, the most serious attack on the “public” character of public education today lies not in the wholesale privatization of vouchers, in which public schools are replaced with private schools. Rather, it lies in what we might call “incremental privatization,” in which the public content of public schools is increasingly hollowed out by corporate education reform. The imposition of a business model and “market discipline” on public education, with the use of high-stakes standardized exams as a “bottom line,” has done serious damage to the ends of public education. The resultant proliferation of testing has narrowed the curriculum and remade schools into ‘test prep’ factories that have no time for the civic and developmental purposes of schooling. The growing role of for-profit ventures and private foundations has brought the distortions of the profit motive into increasingly central functions of public education such as curriculum.

Too often teachers and schools are placed into zero-sum competitions with each other, where a school can only remain open at the price of another school being closed or a teacher can only hold onto her job at the cost of another teacher being dismissed. This cut-throat competition is corrosive of the trust and collaboration that are the essential foundation of good schools and good education. “Test and punish” accountability, with its focus on the mass closure of schools, has led to the growing concentration of high need students in struggling, high poverty schools that are set up for failure. Racial and class segregation are growing—not diminishing—in our schools. The use of autocratic modes of governance, such as mayoral control in New York City, has marginalized and silenced the voices of educators, families and community.

So defending “public education,” Deb, may be a more complex and challenging task than one might first assume, if we are to understand by that defense a vindication of the “public” character of public education. Potential allies may agree with us on one aspect of the incremental privatization of public schools, such as testing, but disagree with us on another, such as racial and class segregation. Consequently, the politics of building the widest and deepest coalition for the defense of public education are not as simple as building a single-issue coalition.

By definition, a coalition brings together diverse people who have disagreements on other issues under a big tent. If there is agreement on every issue, there isn’t much of a coalition. But this is a truism entirely lost on some. One of the more negative presences in social media are the “true believers” who spend all their time and energy attacking some of our best advocates for public education—Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, Randi Weingarten—as the enemy. It is more reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” and the narcissism of small differences than serious politics.

But do we invite everyone into a coalition, regardless of how many differences we have on a large number of issues? I am quite troubled by the willingness of some to make common cause with the Tea Party, simply because of a single agreement over opposition to the Common Core State Standards. Organizations that appeal to prejudices based on race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation seem, at least from where I stand, as at fundamental odds with the ends of public education in democratic society.


Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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