by Doug Tuthill and Adam Emerson
Since the late 1800s, we have defined public education as being synonymous with school districts, but given the increasingly diverse delivery models that now comprise public education this traditional definition is no longer appropriate. We best define public education today as publicly funded learning options that are publicly regulated to achieve a set of democratic values and aspirations — most notably greater equity and excellence.
Ironically some school districts do not seem to meet this modern definition of public education. Consider, for example, the “gated” school districts in some suburbs. Recent redefinED posts about Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to allow cross-district school choice has drawn responses from suburban parents who say they want to keep their district boundaries fortified. “I chose to buy a home where I did because of the good schools,” one parent wrote here. “The children, for the most part, come from homes where the parents are professionals and value education. My concern is that parents who do not share these values will still take advantage of our schools. The problems of the Detroit public schools will become our problems.”
Convictions like these have become institutionalized by Michigan school boards, primarily in wealthy districts, opposed to Snyder’s proposal. The Grosse Pointe school board, just to name one, has now passed a resolution calling for the governor and the Legislature to respect the local community’s authority:
The citizens of the Grosse Pointe Public School System have chosen to make personal sacrifices, including but not limited to investing in premium housing stock … The Board of Education of the Grosse Pointe Public School System has never chosen to participate in the Schools of Choice program in large part to protect and respect these incremental investments made by our citizens to directly benefit our students …
Additionally, the Grosse Pointe Woods City Council followed suit with its own resolution, during which Mayor Robert Novitke said, “You can imagine what it’s going to do to your property values, your quality of life in this community.” And state Rep. Tim Bledsoe, a Democrat from Grosse Pointe, wrote in the community’s newspaper that, “We have for decades taxed ourselves more in order to provide the highest quality education for our children. To now have non-residents take advantage of our many years of investment simply by winning a lottery is outrageous.”
We respect a parent’s desire to do what’s best for her child, but the education system parents and school leaders here want to perpetuate is antithetical to equal educational opportunity and therefore is not truly public education, even though it’s a publicly funded school district.
As the Grosse Pointe school board correctly notes, neither it nor 10 other Michigan districts have chosen to participate in the state’s voluntary Schools of Choice program. They also happen to be among the wealthiest districts that border the City of Detroit and spend the most per pupil.
Political monopolies will always deliver superior services to those with the greatest political power, which is why public education should not be a politically managed monopoly. We don’t begrudge parents using their personal wealth to provide their children with the best education possible, but we support a public education system that ensures all parents, regardless of income or political status, will have access to the learning options they need to properly educate their children. Public education will never meet its obligations to our democracy if it can only be delivered through school districts.