- Liberals aim to shut down discussion on education reform by calling opponents “enemies of public education”
- How we talk about public and private doesn’t match with how the terms are actually used
- Realizing public and private spheres are porous and ever-changing makes us realize many such assertions have no basis in fact
“Enemy of public education” – that’s a term liberals reserve for those who support education reform and school choice. It’s a strong term. And a term public school advocates hurled at Betsy DeVos in hopes of derailing her confirmation as Secretary of Education. “Enemy of public education” it’s a term defenders of the status quo use to halt reform efforts because most Americans believe in the concept of public education and its importance to a healthy democracy.
Those who use the term – and there are plenty – say it’s justified. The logic, say these advocates, is straightforward: Charter schools put unelected individuals in charge of “public schools.” Also, critics say, vouchers and other school choice programs take much-needed resources intended for the public schools and give them to private schools. Thus, according to the public school supporters, you’re an enemy of public education.
These views represent the thinking of the majority of traditional public school supporters. Such thinking, however, is simplistic and flawed. Worse yet, it derives from brittle definitions of public and private that don’t seem to exist in the real world.
Take the term “public.” Most public school advocates say public and private are entirely different terms. Public schools are open to everyone. Public schools are public because they are open to all students; they take everyone … supposedly.
But is this true? If you think about it, it’s not. Public schools serve students who live in a limited, defined district. If you live in one suburb and want to attend school in another, you aren’t allowed to enroll in another school. Likewise, if you’re a poor student, trapped in a failing school, you won’t get a chance to go to a good school with better facilities in a different neighborhood. You may go to a “public” school, but it’s only open to a very narrow slice of the public, and the quality of that school may well be determined by where you live.
You could say the entire enterprise lacks fairness. One district pays more to construct a better school and hire better staff. Taxpayers would justifiably be angry if students from families who did not pay additional taxes were admitted to the school.
Schools are “public” only in the right enclave. There is no or little crossing of boundaries. As much as public school advocates criticize private schools for being elite or having an informal caste, many of the same barriers exist in the public schools.
In “There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Public’ School,” Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute notes these distinctions when he writes:
At best, so-called “public” schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can and do expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed “district schools” because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more “public” than district schools.
Public school advocates also like to claim that since public schools serve everyone, unlike private schools, they serve the public interest. Thus, the Left asserts, private schools merely serve the rich.
Again upon closer review, these assertions seem less than truthful.
A popular misconception holds that private schools are for the rich. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2014, there were 33,600 private schools with an enrollment of 4.5 million students. Do only wealthy parents send their children to private schools? According to the Tax Foundation, the top 10 percent of the all incomes had annual household incomes at or above $120,136.
Obviously not all high-income people are attending private schools, and the corollary is that not all students attending private schools are from the upper 10 percent.
It should also be noted that the overwhelming majority of students who attend private schools attend Catholic and church-related institutions. Catholic and church-related schools are – on average – significantly less expensive than the pricey non-sectarian schools that many of us hear about and believe are the norm for private schools.
Aside from the canard that private schools cater to the rich, we’re also told that private schools fail to serve the public good.
Such assertions are false, especially when you realize prior to the 1820s the only K-12 schools that existed in the United States were private schools. The idea behind the founding of many of our private schools was to educate citizens and provide religious and moral instruction, efforts with clear and defined public purpose. Also, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the very fact that governments regulate private schools at all shows that private schools can and do serve a public function.
Finally, let’s recognize the obvious: Private schools educate students who otherwise would be in public schools. That saves taxpayers money. What kind of savings are we talking about? A rough calculation of 98,000 students in charter schools and 216,000 students in private and home schools in North Carolina shows such schools save NC taxpayers an estimated $2 billion per year. This is a very conservative estimate as it doesn’t include the costs of additional teachers, staff and benefits.
Earlier this month, AEI Scholar Rick Hess weighed in on the discussion with his article “To be an ‘enemy of public education.” Hess unearthed a 2003 column he had written on the subject and suggests the differences between public and private aren’t quite as clear and consistent as many might think.
Hess says that there are three basic ways to understand what it means to be public. Hess calls them the procedural, the input and the outcome approaches.
Hess sees significant problems with each approach, however.
Typically, the procedural approach assumes policymaking and oversight are the responsibilities of governmental bodies, such as a local school district. While many think the procedural approach is pretty straightforward, Hess points out things aren’t always clear cut:
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?
A second criteria advocates often use to define “public” concerns inputs: Public is defined by the use of government funds. Therefore, any metric that uses government funds is public.
Hess points out using this criterion to define public is also problematic. He states, “Private schools in the Milwaukee school choice program receive state tax funds. Does that make the schools ‘public’? Wisconsin dairy farmers receive federal tax subsidies; does that mean dairy farms are public enterprises?”
But Hess takes the point even further and when he brings up the subject most public school parents already know all too well: Public schools charge parents money for activities (band, athletics, art programs) and services (lunch, parking etc.). Of course, to the extent that a school raises revenue off fees, does that mean that the school is less public?
Hess also mentions a third criteria to determine if an institution is public: Does it serve a public purpose? Hess writes:
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”?
All this is to say that the allegedly clear lines between public and private schools aren’t really as clear and simple as most people think. The lines exist, but they are more porous than ever.
The fact is public schools have private aspects and vice versa. The two spheres are changing and – in many ways — looking more and more like each other. The simple distinctions most of use today aren’t very accurate in describing what’s really happening.
Which brings us back to Betsy DeVos and the “enemies of public education.” We can only hope that those realities would cause us to stop and focus more on what we’d like education and educational opportunity to look like and not obsess so much on the instruments for getting there. We may realize we have more in common than we think. And it would be hard to call someone an enemy of public education. That would be good for us all.
 Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States: Results from the 2013-14 Private School Universe Survey, National Center for Education Statistics, November 2016. Available online at: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016243.pdf
 How Much Do Americans Earn in 2015? A comprehensive look at household income and Individual Earnings. Tax Foundation Table sourced in listed article. Available online at: http://www.mybudget360.com/how-much-do-americans-earn-in-2015-household-income-wages-real-income-gdp/
 Estimate is derived by assuming $8,500 state support/student. For 98,000 charter school students, .30 is added to each student because charter school costs are traditionally about 70 percent of the average public school.