In September 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant traveled to Des Moines, where he gave a speech that said in part:
"Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that either the state or Nation, or both combined shall support institutions of learning sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church and the private school supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”
That was long the consensus of what “public education" means in the United States: common schools open to all and funded, operated and governed by the public through local governments.
Now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her allies are pushing their own definition of public education, as new Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did this month, to the secretary’s delight. On Feb. 15, DeSantis gave a news conference about his plan for a school voucher-like program that would use public money for private and religious school tuition, an expansion of the “school choice” options already available in the state. He said:
“An important point to make is, you know, we talk about, ‘This is public school, this is charters.' Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education. . . . In Florida, public education is going to have a meaning that is directed by the parents, where the parents are the drivers because they know what’s best for their kids."
There it was: “Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education.” And DeVos was quick to tweet her support, saying, "Completely agree, @GovRonDesantis.”
To DeVos and those who agree with her, it is wrong to say public education means only traditional public school districts.
Rather, under her definition, it also means charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, sometimes by for-profit companies, and which usually operate with far fewer rules of transparency than traditional school systems. And it includes students who attend private and religious schools with publicly funded vouchers, tax credits and education savings accounts. (It is worth nothing private schools can legally discriminate against LGBTQ students and other groups of students, citing religious reasons.)
The “if it’s public dollars, it’s public education” definition is a logical one for DeVos, a billionaire who once said public schools are “a dead end” and who has spent decades, with her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos Jr., trying to expand charter schools and voucher and voucherlike programs. She continues her push to use public money for private education: On Thursday, she is expected to announce support for legislation being introduced in the Senate that would create a federally funded school tax credit program, although the idea failed to gain traction in Congress in previous years.
But as swift as DeVos was in praising DeSantis, critics were equally swift in slamming him.
“That is absurd," wrote the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.
The governor’s proposal to create a new private school voucher program for students from low-income families and pay for it directly with tax money comes as no surprise. It also is no surprise that DeSantis’ announcement was praised by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the father of school vouchers in Florida, and by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who promotes school choice and has pushed for a federal tax credit for a voucher-like program.
What is remarkable is the rhetoric coming from the governor. DeSantis actually stood at a private school Friday in Orlando and said, “If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education.’’
That is absurd. It redefines the meaning of public education in Florida and the nation. It also flies in the face of the Florida Constitution: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools . . .’’
Exactly where does the state Constitution say the governor and the Florida Legislature can meet that “paramount duty’’ by diverting public tax dollars to private religious schools?
In a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel, Florida state Sen. Perry E. Thurston Jr. (D) called DeSantis’s definition “nonsensical logic.”
Florida seems hellbent on sending its public schools into K-12 purgatory. We’re at the bottom in per-pupil spending and teacher pay, and the number of job openings for quality teachers continues to grow. So, what’s our state’s response? School choice; let’s give more public money to private schools. . . .
Such nonsensical logic is costing Florida’s taxpayers big money, while the one institution responsible for educating more than 2.8 million students flounders from underfunding and poor direction from state leaders. Gov. DeSantis earlier promised to seek more money for per-pupil spending and teachers’ salaries, but this latest move undermines that effort to make our state a more attractive place for educators and education. We simply can’t afford this latest siphoning off of taxpayer dollars from our neighborhood public schools to unregulated and unaccountable private schools.
So what does “public education” mean, objectively? If a dictionary is objective, here’s one definition, from Dictionary.com:
a school that is maintained at public expense for the education of the children of a community or district and that constitutes a part of a system of free public education commonly including primary and secondary schools.
Sarah M. Stitzlein, professor of education and affiliate faculty in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, has a more detailed definition, as she expounded in this 2016 piece in Education Week, titled, “How to Define Public Schooling in the Age of Choice?" She named five things schools must have to be called “public”:
• Public schools should be open to the public, meaning all children are not only permitted but are also welcomed and equitably supported, even if their education may be more costly than average, such as that of students with disabilities or English-language learners.
• They should serve the public, meaning they meet societal needs like preparing active citizens to maintain the government and economy or to serve in the military or on juries, while also preparing graduates to critique and revise those needs.
• They should be responsive to the public, enabling comunity members to vote out school officials or change school policies through meaningful and viable avenues like elections, referendums, and open school meetings.
• They should be creators of the public, meaning that they cultivate citizens who know how to exchange ideas and respond to the ideas of others, while tolerating and working across differences.
• They should sustain democracy by developing skills and dispositions within children for participating and enacting freedom-oriented decisionmaking.
It is hard to argue a private school is a public school, but one of the big questions in this discussion is whether charter schools should be called “public.” They are publicly funded, but not subject to the same rules of operation or transparency as school districts. They are privately managed, sometimes by networks or for-profit companies. About 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend charter schools, with 44 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico having passed laws permitting them.
Arguments for both sides can been on Twitter, with one side using #ChartersAren’tPublic, and the other, predictably, using #ChartersArePublic.
Charter supporters are adamant that these schools are public, because they are publicly funded and, at least in theory, there are not supposed to be admissions requirements. (Some charter schools do have admissions requirements.)
A new Florida nonprofit called the School Choice Movement, opened with the support of Bush’s education foundation, is trying to push the “charters-are-public” idea, recently tweeting the 2018 Florida Statute that says, “All charter schools in Florida are public schools and shall be part of the state’s program on public education.”
To which veteran educator and author Peter Greene tweeted: “Charters are not public schools. I can say that pig is really a cow, but that doesn’t mean it will give milk.”
Greene, who authors the Curmudgucation blog and writes a column for Forbes, wrote in this post:
So technically, any charter school can call itself a public school. Heck, any private or parochial school can call itself a public school if it’s so inclined. But while modern charter schools are financed by public tax dollars, they are not truly public schools for the following reasons.
Public schools are required to provide a transparent look at their finances. At times, some outlets have gone so far as to publish the salaries of individual teachers, and that’s perfectly legal. Nor are public school boards allowed to meet privately or in secret. Everything that happens in a public school is paid for with public dollars, and is therefore subject to public scrutiny. Charters deliberately avoid that level of scrutiny.
2) Subject to state law
The details here vary from state to state . . ., but charter schools generally don’t have to play by the same rules as public schools. Non-discrimination, health and safety, and school year length are often (but not always) exceptions -- beyond the specific exceptions, charters operate as they will, and may in some states request additional waivers. So, for instance, many states do not require charter teachers to be certified. Public schools, meanwhile, must play by all the rules laid down by the state.
3) Student population
Modern charter schools have a variety of techniques for controlling which students they serve. It begins with advertising, which signals which students are most likely to feel like the school is a good fit for them. Charters are not required to provide programs that meet all special needs; they don’t necessarily turn those students down, but if a school tells you that they do not offer the program that your child needs, will you really enroll there? And while lotteries are supposed to select students randomly, lotteries themselves often require committed parents willing to work their way through the paperwork and bureaucracy, so that the system allows parents to self-select for providing the kind of support and commitment that makes students more successful.
4) Local control
Charter schools could be operated by a locally elected board, but they almost never are. Instead, charter schools are owned and operated by private individuals or boards, sometimes located far away from the school itself. Sometimes control of the charter is separated from the community by a series of managerial handoffs -- Group X technically owns and operates the charter, but they hire Corporation Y to actually run the school.
When municipal assets like water systems and parking facilities are handed off to private companies to run, we call it by its name -- privatization. Turning a school over to a private company to own and operate is no different.