Sunday, January 25, 2015

What Is Public Education, Really?

One of the repeated tricks and techniques of reformsterism is to propose policies or procedures as beneficial for public education when in fact, intentionally or not, they are far more likely to damage public education. This argument usually takes the form of trying to redefine public education itself-- kind of like handing someone a screwdriver and saying, "This will be a great hammer; just hold it like this." Much of what is presented as an attempt to reform the public schools are actually attempts to turn them into Not Public Schools.

So let me see if I can lay out what features the real US education system actually has, the better to understand when we've moved outside that boundary. I'll stipulate right up front that our current public education system does not always nail each of these perfectly, but these traits still define what our public education system is (and is not).

The public education system takes all students.

We've divided up territory geographically so that we can be sure not to miss a single child. If a child lives within the boundaries of that school system, that school system must take that child. There are some limits in the public education system (for instance, a child who presents a clear and present danger to other students), but beyond those limits no child can be rejected, pushed out, or required to seek education elsewhere. And certainly the public education system does not require you to apply to be in the system, or go find a school to take you when your original school no longer will.

The public education system is publicly funded.

All taxpayers contribute. It may be necessary for state or federal government to shuffle some of that money around to even things out; after all, we do not provide roads decent roads only in rich neighborhoods. If there's a requirement that parents must contribute money, time, or both in order for their child to be allowed to attend, that is not a public school.

Conversely, any attempt to cut funding or failure to properly provide for a school is nothing less than an attempt to turn it into Not A Public School. While student "outcomes" are certainly a consideration for a public school, it is does not establish equity to simply demand that all schools produce the same outcomes regardless of what resources and facilities they have.

The public education system is run by local taxpayers.

A public school system is one of the last bastions of participatory democracy. The school is run by a group of taxpayers who are elected by other taxpayers. The school board must (in fact, can only) have public meetings at which members of the public can have their say about the decisions of the school board. Taxpayers get to have their final say about school board decisions by voting.

If a school is run by people who don't have to meet in front of the taxpayers and do not have to listen to the taxpayers, it is not a public school. If the people who run the school cannot be removed from office by the people who live in that local school district, it is not a public school. If school policy is set by a people who do not have to answer to local taxpayers, that is not a public school.

The public school system is run transparently.

The complete financial records of a public school are always available, in full, to any taxpayer and/or voter in the local school district. Any school that says, "We don't have to show our financial records to you," is not a public school.

The public school system is not run for profit.

The public school system is a public service. If you like, you can think of it as a managed public good, like a park or the municipal water supply. As such, it never produces a profit for anybody. This includes directly (as in an explicitly for-profit charter) or indirectly (as in a not-for-profit charter that pays profit-creating fees to a building owner or school management company).

The public school is stably staffed with the best professionals the available money can buy.

A public school hires certified professionals, and it pays with a competitive salary and it structures its system to encourage the staff members to stay in the school for the length of their career. Teachers are evaluated with a system that considers the full range of skills and qualities that the school district values, and those who do poorly receive support or, eventually, fired if they cannot get their act together. A public school tries to be a source of stability in its community.

Schools that use any of the pay systems that are designed to cut total operating cost by paying the total teaching staff bottom dollar are not public schools. Using an evaluation system that does not really evaluate the full range of teacher qualities, or which injects an invalid random element, is an attempt to turn the school into Not a Public School. None of these "merit" systems, VAMvaluations, "career ladders," or short-term hiring practices designed to run a school on the cheap contribute to the quality or stability of the school.

The public school is a long term commitment.

Public schools represent a promise by the community made to every child, present and future, that they will be given the best education we can get them, no matter what, as long as there are children who need it. Public schools do not close for business reasons.

You can break these rules.

There are plenty of perfectly good schools that don't meet these standards, and their existence is not a pimple on the face of the universe. But they aren't public schools.

Another way of understanding the reformster position is that they have tried to convince us that entities that are not public schools actually are. If they want to have a conversation about how to change our traditional public education system into something else, that's a perfectly legitimate conversation to have.

But to have that conversation, we need honesty. Reformsters need to just say, "We want to replace the traditional American public education system with a different kind of system," and then we can have that conversation. But insisting that we are trying to bolster or improve public education by stripping its defining qualities is both destructive and dishonest.


  1. Arne's latest tweet says, "Educational opportunity cannot be optional for any child in this country." He said this while meeting with Native American students (and this quote goes with a photo of students posing with Arne). I'm confused. I thought students were required by law to be educated in this country. I do not understand his sentence at all. How does this jive with your definition of public education? Is this yet another example of disconnect?

    When you look at his recent comments (posted below), it seems he thinks he agrees with you. He doesn't say anything that contradicts your definition of public education. So the devil is in the details. Meanwhile, kids keep coming to school and trying to navigate their own maturation process and all of this confusion and contention. Years are going by. They will just put in their ear buds and drown out the noise they don't like.

    Quoted by Arne on January 12, 2015
    For all of our children, for their families, their communities, and ultimately, for our nation, let’s choose the path that makes good on the original promise of this law. Let’s choose the path that says that we, as a nation, are serious about real opportunity for every single child.

    I believe we can work together – Republicans and Democrats – to move beyond the out-of-date, and tired, and prescriptive No Child Left Behind law.

    I believe we can replace it with a law that recognizes that schools need more support – and more money, more resources – than they receive today.

    A law that recognizes that no family should be denied preschool for their children, and reflects the real scientific understanding that learning begins at birth, not somehow at age 5.

    A law that recognizes the critically hard, important work educators across America are doing to support and raise expectations for our children, and lifts up the profession of teaching by recognizing that teachers need better preparation, better support, and more resources to do their hugely important job.

    A law that says that educational opportunity isn’t an option, it’s a civil right, a moral imperative, and the best way we can strengthen our nation and attract and retain great jobs that expand the middle class.

  2. This is a great article/reminder. My understanding from working in education reform for a number of years, in a charter-friendly city, is that at their best, charter schools seek to be innovation labs that help inform education policies by exerting positive pressure on all the people who run the local public education system. For example, a charter school/system with a longer day might see great results from smart use of those extra hours, which would then have community parents saying "wait, we want that too" and pushing their school board representatives to add longer hours to neighborhood schools.

    Somewhere along the line those same schools started saying "no, we're definitely public schools too" and pushing for a larger market share (guided by good intentions, I believe: if what they're doing works, why wouldn't they want to reach more students?) which leads to the confusion you outline above. There's a super fine line between "we're going to work alongside traditional public schools and share what works best to improve all schools in our community" to "we're not happy with the changes you've made/how fast you're moving, so we're just going to take over instead" -- especially when no one can agree on meaningful benchmarks/outcomes... and when the ability of those charters to scale is untested / questionable given a multitude of other factors.

    The biggest difference I've observed seems to be the willingness of "reformy" charters and even school districts to shut an entire school down / "turn it around" dependent on test scores. That's where I think your point about stability and true public schools not closing "for business reasons" is really interesting and important.