Defining public education

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(Host) Commentator Libby Sternberg recalls a supreme court decision that begs question, “What is public education”?

(Sternberg) June 1 marked an important anniversary. On that day in 1925, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “the child is not the mere creature of the state,” and states could not pass laws forcing children to attend only public schools. In this famous ruling, the court also declared that states have reasonable powers to regulate all schools and ensure that “nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.”

More than 75 years later, we are still in one way or another debating this court ruling. How much control over education should the state have and how should education services be delivered in order to best serve the public?

Scholar Frederick M. Hess addressed these questions in a thoughtful essay circulated by the Democratic Leadership Council last fall.

Hess looked at three different ways of defining public education. Each approach, he said, has advantages and disadvantages.

What he calls the “procedural” approach is how our public schools are defined today – institutions whose policies are directed by some elected body or individual.

Ironically, this democratic approach in no way ensures that democratic ideals will be achieved. After all, publicly-controlled schools were the bastions of segregation in the past, and are fraught with debates over whether or not curricula adequately serve the public welfare today.

However, institutions that are not governed by a public body can still serve the public welfare, so in Hess’s view, that qualifies them for a “public” label.

For example, some institutions – such as hospitals and colleges – use public tax dollars to achieve a public good. Hess says this “input approach” means these institutions are public in some way.

Other institutions rely solely on private dollars and yet still achieve public goals. Hess calls this the “output approach” to defining a public institution. Under this definition, private schools achieve a public good by educating citizens and preparing young adults for productive lives, and thus should be viewed as part of the public education landscape.

Hess refuses to endorse any one particular definition as the correct one, but merely wants to raise questions so that we go beyond simplistic ways of viewing public education and move toward the more complex question “Given our shared objectives, what will help educate our children – as individuals and as citizens – most effectively?”

Once we answer that question, Hess contends, we can get past the “slogans” and work from “shared purposes on how to best serve all of America’s children.”

This is Libby Sternberg in Rutland.

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