Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Education Writers Association conference in Baltimore on May 6. (Education Writers Association)
Adam Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of "Fundamentalist U." and "The Other School Reformers."

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently proposed a “new definition” of public education. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association, DeVos challenged reporters to “rethink the definition of public education.”

“Today, it’s often defined as one type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government,” she said. “But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.”

While this sounds reasonable, even enlightened, on its face, those familiar with the history of American education know all too well that DeVos’s new idea is actually a very old one — one Americans rejected two centuries ago for a simple reason: It didn’t work.

Viewed through that lens, DeVos’s plan is not an innovation, but rather a step backward into the dysfunctional ideas out of which our current public-school system evolved.

DeVos’s “new definition” is exactly how American elites thought about public education in the first half of the 19th century. Cities such as Philadelphia and New York cobbled together funding from a range of sources to make schools available for every child, no matter how much money the child’s family had. In northern cities, reformers created schools for white children and separate “African” schools for black people. They welcomed boys and girls, and though their schools were heavily flavored by Protestantism, they welcomed children of all faiths, at least in theory. They did not rely only on taxpayers to fund these schools, nor did they insist on government control.

Instead, the first generation of education leaders begged and borrowed from governments and private philanthropists to create schools for all, believing their project was of benefit to the American public. Back then, a public school was simply one that served the public; the funding usually came from a blend of public and private sources, and the schools themselves were usually run by churches and private charitable organizations, not government agencies. Nevertheless, as one involved New Yorker wrote in 1825, these public/private schools were decidedly “a scheme for the public good.”

The problem was that the funding was never enough. As that same New York reformer concluded in 1825, too often these schools had “inadequate means, and [were] managed by incompetent hands.” As a result, reformers fought for decades to create our current system of public-school funding and control.

Unlike us, America’s first generation of urban school reformers can be forgiven for thinking DeVos’s plan for funding and operating schools might have worked. That belief found supporters across the country, not only in northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia. In Savannah, Ga., for instance, a group of “several philanthropic ladies” got together in 1816 to establish “an institution which should gratuitously dispense the rudiments of instructions to that portion of the poor, who . . . would, without its aid, still remain in ignorance and advance in vice.”

To these reformers in Savannah, there was no doubt that their school operated for the public good, even though it was only intended for white children. It would create better citizens and prevent crime. It would improve the lives of the poor and the civic atmosphere of their city. Back then, cities had no experience with fully tax-funded, government-run schools, so it seemed entirely natural to pay for such public schools with both public and private funding. In Savannah, that meant the individual contributions of the wealthy ladies, bolstered by a grant of land from the state legislature.

At first, New York City’s school leaders made the same assumptions. In 1819, a group of well-heeled elites operated the Free School Society for the benefit of the public. Students from low-income families received free education and the city benefited from a reduction in crime and an increase in economic productivity. To pay for it, the Free School Society collected funds, as members explained, from “the donations and Legacies of charitable Individuals, the bounty of the Corporation [i.e. city government] and the munificence of the Legislature.”

Unfortunately for New York’s schools, this public/private model could not support the needs of New York’s children. At the beginning of 1819, the school board found itself in a financial crisis, running a deficit of $11,465 with only $2,235 in its treasury. The board asked the state legislature in Albany for a grant of $10,165. In their application, the school trustees warned the legislators that without this money, without the “hand of Charity,” the city would soon fall prey to “the vices and crimes of European Cities.”

The tightfisted state legislature, however, shared DeVos’s vision of public education. There was no need for public schools to rely on tax money alone, lawmakers believed. They grudgingly offered $5,000, sending New York’s schools into a desperate budget crunch.

To make ends meet, school leaders had to cut teacher salaries. Predictably, their best teachers left for greener pastures. They cut student programs, too, starting with an extra early-morning class for talented young students. They increased class sizes and cut out prizes for student accomplishments. In protest, parents threatened to keep children at home. The schools limped along, but they lacked the optimism or ambition of their earlier years.

Philadelphians hoped to avoid the pitfalls of such mixed funding models. In 1817, energetic Philadelphia reformers had concluded that their schools — what they had come to call “Public Schools for the education of ALL CHILDREN” — could not be sustained by private charity. Instead, they argued that their “schools ought to be at the public cost, to be defrayed by a specific tax.”

It didn’t happen right away, but eventually citizens all across the nation realized that only regular taxes could fill the holes in school budgets and offer predictable funding streams. As a result, they established the tax-funding model we still rely on today — the model DeVos is so quick to dismiss.

In a sense, that first generation of school reformers had a good excuse for hoping they could truly serve the needs of all schoolchildren, rich and poor, without adequate public funding. After all, it was uncharted territory. They hoped they could rely on the “hand of charity” and the “munificence” of legislators to keep their public schools running.

We know better. With the experience of two centuries of public education, we have no excuse to believe public education can be left to the whims of well-meaning philanthropists and the optional largesse of legislators. Our public schools are not “charity.” Their budgets are not “munificence,” subject to the whims of corporate benefactors, but rather the hard-won legacy of public funding for all, by all.