A better way to define “public education”

Georgia’s first compulsory school attendance law was passed in 1916. Photo from georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu.

For the last 150 years, we have assumed “public education” meant publicly funded education, but in this new age of customized teaching and learning this definition is too narrow. Today, it’s more useful and accurate to define public education as all learning options that satisfy mandatory school attendance laws, including those that don’t receive public funding, such as private schools and home-schooling.

Education – especially public education – has taken many forms in the United States over the last 300 years. According to Pulitzer Prize winning education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, in the 1700s education encompassed institutions “that had a part in shaping human character – families and churches, schools and colleges, newspapers, voluntary associations, and … laws”, while public education referred to formal instruction in public settings outside the home.

Public teaching became increasingly common in the latter half of the 18th century, and by the early 19th century most communities had at least one free school open to all white children. These free schools, which operated independently much like today’s charter schools, became known as common or public schools. They combined with religious schools receiving public funding to educate the poor to comprise public education.  As Cremin notes, in 1813, most New Yorkers saw publicly-funded religious schools “as public or common schools.”

Over the next few decades, public funding for religious schools – most notably Catholic schools – became more contentious and rare. By the mid-1800s, free public schools and public education had become synonymous. Schools not receiving public funds were called private schools, even though they provided public instruction outside the home.

The birth of public education as we know it today occurred during the 1840s and ‘50s.

Catholic immigrants were flooding into urban areas and community leaders needed an effective and efficient way to assimilate these immigrants into a Protestant-dominated republic. Free public schools that were open to all whites and taught Protestant values were the obvious solution.

The country’s first mandatory school attendance law passed in 1852 in Massachusetts, a state that was being inundated by newly arriving Catholics. Over the next 50 years, every state eventually followed Massachusetts’ lead, with Mississippi being the last state to mandate school attendance in 1918. In an attempt to eliminate all Catholic education, Oregon passed a Ku Klux Klan supported initiative in 1922 requiring all children to attend Protestant-controlled public schools. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this initiative unconstitutional in 1925, giving parents the ultimate authority – within the constraints of each state’s mandatory attendance law – to determine how their children are educated.

The industrial expansion of the late 1800s led to more changes in public education. As immigration into urban areas caused city populations to explode, public school managers embraced the promised efficiencies of assembly lines, standardization, mass production, and command-and-control management. This industrialization of public schooling accelerated in the early 20th Century and is still the dominant organizational model today. But now, another transformation is occurring.

Public education is currently transitioning from a one-size-fits-all model of schooling to customized learning. As this shift unfolds, what constitutes public education is again changing.

Over the last several years, many reformers, including those of us at redefinED, have argued that public education is being redefined.  It is no longer a closed system of neighborhood schools owned and managed by local school boards that assign students to schools by zip code. Instead, public education is evolving into an open and diverse network of structured learning environments, many of which are privately-owned and managed, that students can access using public funds. I still support this emerging new definition, but with one caveat. I no longer believe schools need to receive public funding to be considered part of public education. I now think public education is better defined as education that satisfies mandatory school attendance laws, regardless of whether this education is publicly or privately funded.

My rationale: attendance laws exist to serve a public purpose, and public education is the vehicle states have created to achieve this purpose. Therefore, any education that satisfies a state’s attendance law is public education, while education that does not satisfy this law is not. In Florida, for instance, this means public education includes homeschooling and private schools, since attending these schools meets the state’s attendance requirements. Conversely, publicly-funded after school tutoring programs run by the Boys and Girls Clubs are not public education since attending them does not satisfy attendance laws.

Aligning what constitutes public education to the purpose underlying school attendance laws should enhance our dialogue about how best to regulate customized learning. For example, should all students who are meeting a state’s attendance law be required to master the same learning standards? Should home and private school students be required take the same state exams as charter and district school students? Or, if home-school parents can exempt their children from taking these exams, should parents in magnet, virtual and neighborhood schools have this same option?

As customization increasingly replaces the industrial assembly line as public education’s preferred organizational model, we’ll need to redefine public education accordingly. If history is any guide, this redefinition will be one of many over the next 300 years.

Writer’s note:  The Lawrence A. Cremin quotes come from his book, American Education:  The National Experience, 1783-1876 (page 2 and page 164, respectively).

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3 Responses to A better way to define “public education”

  1. Sherman Dorn December 5, 2012 at 7:30 am #


    I’d go a little further in discussing what happened in the 19th century: a reasonable reading of political success of common-school reformers is the crystallization of “public education” as meaning publicly-funded, publicly-controlled, publicly-accessible, and for public purposes — the last two being the most obviously limited/problematic from our modern view. A stricter dividing line between public and private was part of that process, with the parallel network of Catholic schools growing up after bishops decided that the Protestant-dominated public schools of the time were hostile to Catholicism.

    In the late 20th century, I would add a fifth component: publicly-accountable, with the meaning of accountable shifting over the period but not the concept. (Florida’s first school accountability law passed in 1971, and Bobby Kennedy pushed for annual testing of Title I service recipients in 1965.) One of the obvious ways in which voucher programs are not public education in our modern experience is the lack of accountability.

    Can you successfully strip away the other meanings of public and shift this entirely to “public education is anything that’s formal education satisfying compulsory attendance laws”? I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, two Supreme Court decisions in the 1920s made it very clear that states could require education but not education at public schools — that issue is settled law, setting the limits of state authority over parents. So compulsory-attendance laws are not a political controversy or even a matter of much consideration (despite the real attendance problems for a small number of students that interferes with their learning).

    More fundamentally, the collection of attributes we associate with the term “public education” revolve closely around the messy collection of goals we hold for schools — and I don’t think you’re going to persuade many people to ignore that political lasagna of goals. In fact, the PRECISE reason why you get some support for vouchers is because of the case made by Catholic educators, among others, who have made the case that Catholic education serves public goals, graduating good citizens and well-educated adults. There’s a reason why a number of archdioceses have adopted the Common Core, and it fits comfortably within the history of Catholic education paralleling many pieces of public schools (see Paula Fass’s Outside In for more on that). Catholic schools are not public in the sense of public accountability, but if you try to redefine public education by stripping away all the other meanings, you’re also working against the ways in private-school educators conscientiously believe they contribute to the public good.

  2. Anonymous December 5, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Both Mr. Tuthill’s post and Mr. Dorn’s response are excellent. I tend to agree with Mr. Dorn that an over-reliance on the attendence requirement in defining what we consider to be “public schooling” would be misguided in this day and age, since the question of compulsory attendance has long been settled. The key issue in the contemporary debate is administrative control, and specifically whether it should rest with locally- elected school boards or some other entity, whether it be a larger, non-local governing body or a private corporation. Proponents of continuing to vest locally-elected school boards with administrative authority are, I believe, attempting to preserve the basic framework that dates back to the earliest “common” schools that you described above. I take issue with your attempt invoke “independent operation” as a means to equate these early schools with modern charter schools. Early public schools were independent in the sense that they operated without bureaucratic oversight, and were answerable only to the local citizenry. They were “public” because they served the needs of the public in their immediate vicinity. I do not think this is the same thing as a modern charter school, which is not necessarily answerable to a specific local community. Furthermore, modern charter schools are subject to a type of corporate, profit-motivated oversight that the early public schools were not. In this sense, there is nothing public about them, in that they serve private interests that may not be aligned with the interests of the public.

    • Doug Tuthill December 7, 2012 at 9:15 am #

      Sherman and Anonymous–Thank-you for your thoughtful replies. You both raise some interesting points that I intend to respond to. I’m in the midst of intense two weeks at the moment, but I’ll try and get a response up within a week.

      Thanks again.


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