Defining “public” education

I figured I’d start my posting here with something I think about probably more than is healthy.

I often push back when people push to “keep public education public,” as noted in a Twitter post of mine, but I think people often misinterpret that as a position for or against public education. This makes sense, given how tense this discussion has been throughout history, but I should clarify that what I’m really trying to do is understand people’s positions to get people on the same page about what exactly our disagreements are.

I don’t think there’s anything novel about posing the question about what “public” education means, but my question here is less about what a “public” is or what a “public good” is, but more about the different parts of what makes education that can be varyingly public or private. For all of the same lack of clarity I feel in school choice and charter school advocacy, I do think there’s one point that these advocates tend to get right: There’s a difference between public funding of education and public management.

This comment, however, only touches on two of several different facets of education that are more or less public. I think there is a set of similar questions that we need to be able to understand in order to have more coherent policy positions. While I began this post by addressing the “keep public education public” crowd, I think the same need to answer these questions can be applied to those from most education policy positions, including those involved with charter school and school choice debates.

I do not attempt here to answer these questions, but rather to pose them as a set of thoughts to which I think people should have responses in order to have clearer and more comprehensive visions for public education. I also posit that the more important questions for designing a vision are not whether the system is currently working as people believe it should, but rather defining what people believe in the first place. As such, all questions posed below are “should” questions. I also don’t claim to be the first to put these questions together. I’m just writing them down as they are on my mind, in terms that make the most sense to me. I also fully admit that the particular way I approach these questions is informed by my own positions on some of them, so forgive me in advance if any of these questions seem more leading than I perceive them to be as I write them.

I think many of these questions have been thoroughly traversed in conceptual and philosophical questions about education policy, but at least in my travels (which are admittedly limited), popular discourse rarely draws all of these questions together into a cohesive argument.

  1. I think this is less of a decision that we can make in education policy and more a mix of social questions across disciplines from economics to sociology, but there is significant debate about whether education is a public good. I define this question here to be about public benefit. Should the benefits accrued to individuals that participate in the education system translate to benefits for the larger society? (I pose this question from the position that it is possible to intentionally design a society and an education system that is more or less publicly beneficial, but I understand that others may feel differently.)
  2. The question of public governance is fairly complicated, but also, I probably see it as complicated because I tend to think about it a lot (and I also have a tendency to overcomplicate things). By “public” governance, I am referring specifically to systems of education governance that are, though whatever mechanism, directly and substantively acting in the interest of the public. This most traditionally has concerned local and state boards of education, but could also arguably include congressional education committees, elected education mayors, and even the appointed federal Secretary of Education. Some might disagree and say that any appointed governance body or person is not directly acting in the interest of the public. I think that’s fair, and I think the capacity of elected versus appointed (by elected officials) governance structures to enact successful democracy is up for debate. The broader question, though, is whether private interests that are not in the position to represent the public should be a part of education governance.
  3. Along with public governance, there’s some question of whether education should be publicly funded. At this point, we’ve extended past the point of being able to operate from organically-developed collectives and entered the realm of specific organizations of education (tied to financial capital, which tends to be an organizing force in our society). I think the place to see this conflict in current education policy is when considering education philanthropy. Large organizations ranging from the Walton Family Foundation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have contributed millions of dollars to education over the years, and before more recent history, many of these dollars were allocated to fairly non-specific items such that essentially, these organizations were bolstering the funding of existing public schools. In some ways, especially for many of the most struggling schools, it’s not out of the question that we could consider those schools to be somewhat privately funded, while still being publicly governed (for the most part).
  4. I think it is important to separate the idea of public management from public governance. The most clear example of this, which prompted my thoughts around this post, is the charter school movement. Whether charter schools are truly “public” is a question that is highly contested, and I think the essential question is whether a service for the public needs to be implemented by employees of the public. Is it possible to have a private organization that is accountable to the public? If you ask charter advocates, I think many would say yes. I think this question is one of the most critical questions for current education debates: Does a “public” school need to be managed by a public entity, or does it only need to be governed and/or funded by a public entity to be considered “public”?
  5. The last question I pose, while certainly not the end of similar questions you could ask like these, is whether education should be publicly accessible. This includes a whole set of additional questions, including what exactly people have access to (schools, or schools of a certain caliber?). In addition, what does “publicly accessible” look like? Are private schools, who often have certain admissions requirements, technically publicly accessible since all people could apply?

One overriding comment on all of these questions is that I think people tend to act as if their opinions on these various items are not tied to their opinions about the organization of a productive and/or just society, i.e., government in general. I’m not saying that there aren’t some people that have opinions independent about these ideologies, but at least in my experience, if you strip down people’s opinions about “public” education, the essential conflicts often come down to questions of faith in and vision for public government.

My last comment is that of course, the question notably absent from all of these questions is the extent to which the visions people have for these different items are compatible with current forms of society, including current disparities in wealth distribution and power. The way society is structured has developed from a mix of pro- and anti-government sentiments, and public education is not exempt. Are there certain visions for education that are incompatible with who we are as a society? For example, is it possible for education to truly operate as a public good in an arguably capitalist society? I’m not saying that this should dissuade people from advocating for a more truly public education system, but I just pose this as a thought for considering the levers of public society that people would need to push in order to achieve a vision for public education. People often disregard commentaries on capitalism as too theoretical or idealistic for any practical use, but I think that people’s considerations of capitalism are often at the core of problems in education policy, and I think ignoring them leads to the kinds of circular reforms that make education policy seem like it’s going nowhere.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *