You Might Be An Education Policy Hack If…You Make Semantic Arguments About the Phrase “Public School”
June 18, 2012 4 Comments
To do my part to improve the discussion about education in America I’ve decided to take a page from Jeff Foxworthy (whatever happend to him?) and help people figure out if they’re failing to contribute even a marginal amount of insight to the debate. Today’s edition is for those who comment on school choice by engaging in semantic arguments about what is and isn’t a “public school.” For example, Here’s Diane Ravitch:
I have problems thinking of charter schools as public schools. They have private management and, just because they have public money, it doesn’t make them public schools. If that were the case, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton would all be public schools. They receive public funds.
Well, if we ignore the fact that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton aren’t open to anybody, aren’t free, and aren’t publicly held accountable for their results, then I guess I understand what she’s saying.
Now here’s school finance guru Bruce Baker creating an analogy to describe the “public” nature of charter schools.
Imagine a community park, for example, that is paid for with tax dollars collected by all taxpayers in the community, and managed by a private board of directors. That board has determined that the park may reasonably serve only 100 of the community’s 1,000 residents. The amount of tax levied is adjusted for the park’s capacity. To determine who gets to use the park annually, interested residents subscribe to a lottery, where 100 are chosen each year. Others continue to pay the tax whether chosen for park access or not. The park has a big fence around it, and only those granted access through the lottery may gain entrance. Imagine also that each of the 100 lottery winners must sign a code of conduct to be unilaterally enforced by the private manager of the park. That management firm can establish its own procedures (or essentially have none) for determining who has or has not abided by the code of conduct and revoke access privileges unilaterally. This is clearly not a PUBLIC park in the way that scholars such as Paul Samuelson describe public goods.
Baker gets higher marks for effort than Ravitch, but I’m not convinced his analogy would be that different for a traditional district public school. District schools also have codes of conduct (e.g. no stabbing), their space is not unlimited, and they’re paid for with tax dollars collected from those who don’t use them. And what about the selective “public” middle and high schools that are common in a city like New York and require a certain test score for admission?
Now here’s my definition: A public school is free, open to anybody (with certain obvious space and geographic caveats), and can be shut down if it doesn’t meet publicly defined accountability standards. Notice how I’ve cleverly built the definition to include charter schools. And that’s my point. The phrase “public school” has no official meaning. Whether or not you consider something a “public school” is insignificant because there’s nothing intrinsically good about being arbitrarily defined as a “public school.” Throughout American history there have even been times where entire classes of people were unjustly banned from attending “public schools.”
What matters is that a school uses the proper channels to excel at serving the population of students it’s supposed to serve. It’s fine if you associate that outcome with the phrase “public school,” but it serves no purpose to base an argument around the semantics of the phrase if you ignore what made the phrase noteworthy in the first place. I’ll repeat this because it’s important. It doesn’t matter what types of schools are included in the “public school” definition you’ve constructed to support your agenda. What matters are the positive educational outcomes you associate with “public schooling.” That’s why if you spend a lot time discussing the phrase “public school” instead of actual school performance, you just might be an education policy hack.