Teaching Profession Opinion

What It Means to Be Public and Why It Matters

By John T. McCrann — December 11, 2015 3 min read
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Any child can play at a McDonald’s Play Pen. Does that make these “public” playgrounds? Lockheed Martin received over $44 billion in government dollars in the year 2013. Does that make it a “public” company and its workers whose salaries were paid with that money “public” employees? Disney received billions in “special loans, land grants, credits and investments.” Does that make Disney World a “public” park?

We all have a sense that there is something qualitatively different between a McDonald’s Play Pen and a playground in Central Park, between Lockheed Martin and NASA, between Disney World and Yellowstone.

A public organization is one that must be open to the public, funded by public dollars, and managed by public institutions.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I teach at a school that is both publicly funded and publicly managed. It was important to me that readers knew at the outset of this blog that the reforms and innovations that we’re implementing at Harvest Collegiate are taking place with the direct oversight of democratic institutions. If the people of New York City designate space for a certain purpose, we comply with that designation. If the people make a contract with a labor organization, we comply with that contract. If we break the rules, we are accountable to the public in a prescribed and mutually-agreed upon way.

This is in contrast to other schools that have different management structures. Independent, parochial, and charter schools are regulated in different ways. They do not have the same obligations when it comes to complying with decisions made by the public. They do face the same level of accountability to the public. They are not public schools.

Why does this matter beyond semantic precision?

In New York City, we have an active charter sector, one that often positions itself as superior to publicly managed schools and wields political power. Running two parallel systems under different management structures necessarily creates competition for limited resources due to the “zero sum-ness” of space and dollars. We cannot have a responsible civic dialogue about how to allocate these resources if we are not open and honest about the differences between the two models.

However, there is a larger political point here that often gets lost in partisan bickering about which schools do or do not “place students first” or who has more clout in state capitals.

The existence of a parallel structure that is using public money but thumbing its nose at regulations and agreements made by the public undermines an idea that should be at the core education in a democracy. Rule by the people means that the public ought to have a say in public schools.

In the past few months we have seen news of charter schools with lists of students who have got to go, spending millions of tax dollars on advertising campaigns that some find offensive, and attempting to misrepresent themselves to appear more effective than they really are.

I’m not saying these kinds of problems are unique to charter schools, but if they were happening at my public school, every New Yorker would have both the right and the means to act. There are school-based, district wide, and city wide meetings that are open to the public where anyone can come to express concerns. People whose concerns are not addressed can petition their Borough President and the Mayor to change members of our Panel for Educational Policy and vote them out if they do not. These systems are not responsive to every concern, but they go far beyond the ability that I—as a voter and taxpayer—have to address issues at the charter schools in my neighborhood.

I want to work towards a public school system that is genuinely and democratically responsive. One in which every young person in that community truly belongs within our system, one that would be outraged at “got to go lists” and attempts to coerce or mislead members of their community.

Charter schools are not to be blamed for the fact that we do not currently have such a system, but those of us who—like Deborah Meierare “partisans for democracy” ought to be concerned by them.

I leave with you a question: In what ways can schools—regardless of management structure—become more responsive to all the members of their community? Please provide examples of schools you know and love that are doing this well so we can all learn from them.

Photo: Central Park in New York City, a truly public institution. “26 - New York - Octobre 2008" by Martin St-Amant (S23678) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:26_-_New_York_-_Octobre_2008.jpg#/media/File:26_-_New_York_-_Octobre_2008.jpg

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