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More inaccuracies from school choice opponents

What makes a school "public?"


Kentucky is one of a handful of states that still has no meaningful mechanism for school choice - not open enrollment, not charter schools, not education savings accounts, not even tuition tax credits. But as we inch ever closer to our first real debate on this topic, the rhetoric about the impact of such proposals on our "public schools" becomes important. Opponents of parental choice will use a defense of "public schools" as a rallying cry. So, it seems like a good time to ask the question: what is a public school anyway?

In 2004, Rick Hess wrote a long, thoughtful essay for Phi Delta Kappan on this topic called "What is a 'Public School?'" His observations and conclusions are as relevant now as they were 12 years ago. I can't improve upon Hess's thoughts, and I urge you to read the article in full. What follows are just reflections of my own, informed, in part, by Rick's piece.

Hess explores how our assumptions about what makes some institutions "public" and others "private" don't hold much water. Many of the characteristics we instinctively attribute to public schools only apply in a very limited way. For example, we might say that a school is public because it a) receives taxpayer dollars, b) has to take everyone, c) provides its services for free, and is d) subject to public accountability. But a is true of many different kinds of schools and institutions, and b through d aren't entirely true of district schools themselves.

Taxpayer funding. This one seems the most obvious but thoroughly insufficient, since government-run institutions like local districts schools aren't the only entities that receive funding from the government. Is a privately-held hospital that receives Medicaid reimbursements also public? What about a private college a student attends using a Pell grant?

Open to all. District schools aren't, however. Rather, they are generally open only to those who live within a certain geographical boundary. As the Cato Institute's Jason Bedrick points out, in this way your local shopping mall is more "public" than your local district school. Magnet schools, gifted services, and other district programs restrict their enrollment to students who meet a particular profile or want to avail themselves of a particular instructional approach. There is nothing wrong with this. The point is not that districts schools aren't "public," but that a public institution doesn't, by definition, attempt to serve everyone.

Free. Nor do public institutions by definition provide their services entirely for free (think about the post office or national parks "usage" fees). In addition to various fees and costs public school parents routinely face, the real costs to families of a local district school lies in the housing market. To attend many public school districts requires enormous expenditures to buy a home or pay the higher rents associated with such areas. As I've argued many times before, this is the way affluent families already have school choice.

Accountability. True, district schools are subject to the sometimes byzantine mechanisms of state-mandated performance reporting, but to what extent do these measures truly hold schools accountable for improvement? School turnarounds are not unknown, of course, but if these mechanisms really held educators accountable, our rate of improvement would be much higher. The truth is, a low-performing school can realistically drain millions of taxpayer dollars for years and years with no meaningful consequence. "Local control" of schools by elected school boards is no remedy for this, and as Ashley Jochim and Paul T. Hill point out in their excellent little book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, local boards of education are, functionally, arms of the state government anyway.  

Families may be unsatisfied with their local schools, but unless they have the means to move or pay private school tuition, they cannot exercise the ultimate form of accountability against the district school: leaving to go elsewhere. Andy Smarick ably argues that this is why heavy-handed, top-down accountability systems are needed for public schools in the first place - there's no other way of assuring quality, and even then it doesn't work particularly well.

So the bottom line? District schools are not open to all students, they aren't really free, and they have limited accountability for how they use tax dollars. My point is not to condemn public schools, and certainly not to criticize the thousands of dedicated and hardworking people who serve in them. Rather, we need to expand our understanding of schooling as a public good similar to other public goods like health care, household food security, and even higher education.

Balancing the collective and individual (familial) purposes of education, Rick Hess offers a useful stab at what a public school really is, and it isn't simply one that is run by the government: 

Public schools should teach children the essential skills and knowledge that make for productive citizens, teach them to respect the constitutional order, and instruct them in a framework of rights and obligations that secure our democracy and protect our liberty. Any school that does so should be regarded as serving public purposes.

The clear policy implication of this broader, more balanced understanding of public schooling is that education dollars are appropriated for the benefit of students (not to prop up various government-run institutions), and should generally follow students to the schools of their families' choosing. Hill and Jochim use the analogy of a "backpack." Each student should receive a backpack of education dollars each year, with the amount adjusted based on various demographic factors reflecting the child's individual needs, and parents then may choose providers that are best able to meet those needs.  A light regulatory framework of performance reporting, transparency, and accountability should ensure that the system operates fairly and honestly, and reflects the larger, civic goals of public schooling.

There is a lot to debate in the details of such a proposal. But the discussion should begin with a clear understanding of what a public school is - and is not.

Read the full text of Rick Hess's article here.

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Usual disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

 Image above: Map from this year's Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit, highlighting Kentucky's status as one of the few states with no school choice policy.




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