What Is a Public School System, 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 U.S. 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.

Originally posted in Curmudgucation