“Public education” is anything but public

public education school fence
Jack Coons of Berkeley Law writes that it’s time we all grasp that what we have called “public education” is actually anything but – and it’s long time to make it so through school choice.

In much of American society, children attend a school that has been chosen by their parents. Mom and Dad have picked out a home in the attendance area of a certain school that is owned and run by the government. At the very least, when they moved they knew its reputation. Whether or not the school was a major consideration, they accepted it as a substantial part of the culture that would count greatly in shaping their child’s worldview.

That school of theirs will be called “public.” My Webster’s defines this word in various ways, but most prominent among these meanings, and consistent with all, is this one: “Open to all persons.”

Think about it. Is that government school that you chose for your child open to all children? Of course it is, with one condition – namely that every American family can afford to live where you have chosen to live. Is this public?

Of course, your chance of location in this “public” school attendance area may have had little to do with your finding that dream home. You may be able to afford a private school, and that is your choice now. It may be Saint Mary’s or the Free Thought School, but it is there for the picking, and you pick it. Now my question: Is this private school any less public than the Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary in your attendance area?

A word – one word – can sometimes account for so much. Those in the 19th Century who designed our state systems of compulsory education prudently chose the term “public” as their political banner. It sounds so democratic. Never mind that most of these pioneers sent their own children to “private” schools. But to many “public” stuck, even as the masses of poor immigrant folk had their children bundled into schools chosen for them by whom? Nobody. No human person even laid eyes on Susie and decided that PS 225 was exactly the spot for her. The decision was utterly mechanical; strangers drew lines on a map and issued commands to other strangers down on 53rd Street.

We sometimes criticize low-income parents as trending towards the slack and heedless and, lacking responsibility, some do; but it is hard to imagine anything more heedless and destructive to character and responsibility than an unaccountable assembly of perfect strangers notifying Mrs. Schmalz that they are in charge of her child whether she likes it or not – and by the way, she’d better make sure the kid gets there every day, or else. And once there, some stranger-teacher will deliver the pedagogical goods to Susie for nine months, thereafter to depart this child’s life unburdened by any responsibility for her future nor for the state of any family with parents shorn of authority – save as providers of material goods and nighttime routines. Of course, mindless conscription does not corrupt every family; there will be heroes. But what a way to corrupt a society!

There is a deep social restlessness about this snatching of responsibility from the parent. It has given the poor a scattering of charter schools, a choice which to a degree empowers parents as grown-ups and does so without injury to standard measures of the child’s learning – even raising scores a bit. Best of all with charters, someone who actually knows Susie and carries a lifetime of hope for her is now making decisions for which she and/or he will never cease to be and feel responsible.

This tinkering with choice is giving New York City the fits. On Sept. 21, a New York Times article carefully described the city’s ongoing efforts to offer educational rescue to poor parents with a smart kid (and to them only). These students turn out to be predominantly Asian, creating a serious social and political problem. It is a problem, however, that could be addressed by subsidizing the choice for the poor to leave the “public” system altogether. Private schools wishing to participate would be subject only to moderate new regulation, the most important of these being the rules for admission. The burden on the school could be modest yet effective; for example, a portion of the school’s acceptances – say 20 percent – could be reserved for lottery among those applicants yet unaccepted.

Stephen Sugarman and I have, over the years, designed a half dozen systems expressing in different ways specific forms of regulation that should protect the mission of both the institution and the family, of seller and buyer. These models have earned us the label “Voucher Left”; the reader would have to examine them to decide the fairness of the trope, and whether these designs would, in operation, not diminish but greatly expand the quantum of human liberty.

The Times article describes another device being considered in NYC under the banner of parental choice. It is a plan “created … by parents in District 15,” and deemed by the mayor a “gratifying … kind of democracy playing out.” The article does not tell which parents made the plan for other parents; my reservation is that there is really no collective other than the family to design the plan for the child; let’s bring responsibility home whether or not it be “democratic.”

The New York City labyrinth of schools, with a few open only to the most nimble minds, is not going to satisfy the cry for choice. Test scores are relevant and promising but do not constitute the central measure of a truly “public” system, which will be realized only in the liberty and dignity of struggling parents now unable to perform their role. The impressment of their offspring has been a cruel disregard of the human role so clearly recognized for those of us able to live where we prefer. It is time we all grasp that what we have called “public education” is anything but; let’s at least make it so.

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."