What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

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.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.


My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.


About educationrealist

15 responses to “What the Public Means by “Public Education”

  • Roger Sweeny

    New York City’s “exam schools” aren’t public schools? I think the public in NYC feels differently.

    How strict is your definition of “public”? Are magnet schools not public? Are they public if no one is ever turned away but non-public otherwise? Are they public if the problem of too many applicants is resolved by a lottery but non-public if it is resolved by some sort of selective admission process? Does it matter what the selective admission process is?

    This is probably a reductio ad absurdum, but do Honors or AP classes that are limited to a certain number of top-performing students render a school non-public?

    • educationrealist

      I specifically said that magnet schools aren’t public, didn’t I? Right before I mentioned the NY schools. Any school that restricts admission is not.

      If Honors and AP classes have lots of interest, they should set a standard. And everyone who makes that standard should be accepted, yes.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Yes, you did. My bad.

      So are you saying that only geographically-based schools are public? Or is the problem limited enrollment? If magnet schools accepted anyone who applied, would you consider them public?

      • educationrealist

        Enrollment can be limited if they take *all comers* in that limitation. So geographic limitations–all comers. IQ cutoff–all comers. Deaf kids–all deaf kids. And so on.

      • Roger Sweeny

        If I understand you correctly ….A science and technology magnet school would be public if it said, “We welcome any 13-year-old in the County who has a B average in middle school science and math courses, and a 600 on our Science and Math Aptitude Test.” However, it would not be public if it said, “All applicants are ranked on the basis of middle school science and math course grades, and score on our Science and Math Aptitude Test. We then accept the top 100.”

        Two questions:

        1) Is this what “the public” sees as the difference between public and non-public schools? Is this history and/or resonance and/or heart?

        2) I gather that the major (only?) reason for drawing the distinction is that “only public schools should get public money.” But what is it about “takes all comers within some limitation” that makes those who do it worthy of government money and those who don’t not worthy?

      • educationrealist

        1) Yes. “Which school is public: Stuyvesant High or Podunk High?” the public would answer that Podunk High is public. If then told both of them were public, most would demur.

        2) Not sure. But certainly “free schools should not take money from public schools”. It’s not about “worthiness”, but rather about the assumed cost of educating all students rather than just the convenient some.

  • Purple Tortoise

    If it’s true that public school must take all comers, then it’s equally true that students in public schools must take whatever education they are offered, however bad or good. And so if you are in a class where the teacher’s sole instructional method is having students copy by hand paragraphs from the textbook (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. And if a school doesn’t provide basic equipment in science labs or doesn’t provide teachers with subject matter expertise in what they are teaching (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. And if the material presented in the classroom is unsuitable for your cognitive level (as happened to me), there’s no recourse. The only real requirement is that an adult be present in the classroom, but public schools are under no obligation to provide an education. I suppose it must be this way given the constraints under which public schools operate.

    • educationrealist

      Yep. That’s why I think it’s criminal that the SC allows special ed students to sue.

      That said, the hard truth is that if your story were true, or more than a one year problem, we wouldn’t have the improved test scores that we had. So either you’re exaggerating (likely) or you just had bad luck to get one of the fringes of schools. But yeah, if you can’t afford private school you take what you get.

      • Purple Tortoise

        The irony is special ed kids only get the formal process of education, not necessarily an education itself.

        The non-teaching teacher was a one-year problem (for me), and I don’t know why he wasn’t fired. But my broader point is that no one higher up ever suffers for letting such situations occur.

        Regarding the rest of my story, I was in a rural district that experienced rapid exurban growth during my high school years, and perhaps they had too little money for too many needs. But I was a fringy student — very bright — who received a one-size-fits-all mediocre education. My high school didn’t offer even a single AP course, and I had a very tough time in college going up against students who had gone to magnet schools in New York.

        Perhaps test scores have improved, but I suspect a lot of teaching to the test has occurred. I’m seeing many kids who placed out of calculus courses via AP and yet do not know calculus.

        At any rate, I solved the problem of providing a suitable education for my own bright kids — we homeschool.

      • educationrealist

        Teachers only teach to the test in high blk/Hispanic districts from my experience, and even then only in elementary school.

      • Purple Tortoise

        I teach at the college level, and a general view has developed that students are entering with higher GPAs and more APs under their belts, but with less command of the actual material.

    • cthulhu

      I’m perfectly willing to believe PT’s anecdotes, because I went through similar stuff. E.g., I sat in the back of the classroom in high school math and science classes self studying because I was well beyond what the teachers could teach me (and well beyond the other kids too), and my small rural school had no AP classes or anything remotely like a gifted and talented program. But ultimately for me it didn’t really matter; I did well enough on the ACT to get a good scholarship to the school I wanted to attend and was able to catch up in key areas like calculus and physics (neither of which I was formally exposed to in high school; we had no teachers qualified to teach either) with minimal hits to my GPA.

      And maybe that’s my point: the really smart kids will manage for the most part; they’ll figure out how to get what they really need to succeed. But the public schools need to serve that broad middle area of capabilities, where school excellence can maybe make a meaningful difference in where these kids will end up. I’m with Ed on the “pick a standard and stick to it” instead of limiting enrollment for programs like AP or magnet schools, for example. We don’t need public schools trying to pretend they’re the Institute for Advanced Study.

      Oh, on the special ed topic: I have special needs kids (mostly autism spectrum disorder), and we learned early on that special ed and the IEP process was a huge sanity sink that served only special education bureaucracy interests, and stayed the hell out of it. I don’t pretend to know how to cross that particular Serbonian bog where children whole have sunk (apologies to Edmund Burke), but what they’re doing now ain’t it.

      • anonymousskimmer

        “the really smart kids will manage for the most part; they’ll figure out how to get what they really need to succeed.”

        What’s “for the most part”, what’s “succeed”?

        Since we’re all into the personal anecdotes….

        This is not always true, even of some kids who are far brighter than anyone who has ever read this blog (e.g. Miraca Gross’ work, the Terman study, etc…).

        People differ. What’s a survivable ecology for some is superb for others and a literal and figurative death trap for others. You need knowledge beforehand on which ecology is best for you, for you to jump into once an adult. And only the individual is in the best position to make this choice (with very rare exceptions).

        Kids need the education on how the world works, what alternatives there are, etc… in order to effectively utilize whatever education they do receive. They need this knowledge from those who actually are knowledgeable on the subject. Unaddressed naivety sucks far more than a bad school.

  • Purple Tortoise

    I eventually turned out fine, but for many years I resented how much of my childhood time and potential was wasted because I was a particular age and therefore had to be in a particular grade and therefore had to sit through slow-paced instruction on particular basic topics.

    And if the purpose of public schools is really to serve the broad middle, then it can be done at a fraction of the taxpayer money we are now spending on it. And if we are going to spend many times more to help children with capabilities outside the broad middle, why not spend it on the smart kids, who will gain much more benefit and provide much more back to society than will the low end and special ed?

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