Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education has been marked by frantic, vitriolic claims that she is an “enemy of public education.” Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what this means—mostly because her critics haven’t been especially clear about just what they mean by “public education.” After all, there are traditional “public district schools” that have admissions criteria (e.g Bronx School of Science), charge for various services (e.g. music, AP tests), or are open only to families who inhabit certain neighborhoods (e.g. all of them). So, let’s take a moment to reflect on what we mean by “public education.” Because the debate has grown so overheated, I fear that anything penned nowadays is going to be seen through a political lens. So, if only to avoid the charge that I wrote them with an eye to today’s kerfuffle, I’ll share a few thoughts from a commentary I penned for Education Week fourteen years ago, back in 2003.
As I asked back then:
What is “public” about public schooling? That question currently looms over the national conversation about school reform . . . [and] 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 . . .
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 . . . [which have wrestled with challenges like] 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 . . . 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 . . . 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?
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 . . . 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 . . . 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?
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 . . . 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” . . . [Doing so just might] 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.
Whoa! What a goofy notion: debating how to fulfill the promise of public education with more seriousness and fewer superficial slogans? We might even discover that the “friends of public education” constitutes a circle that is both larger and more diverse than some may have once imagined.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.
This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.