A better definition of public education, a better debate about what we want from it

Doug Tuthill

In a recent post, I argued that because customized teaching and learning have so blurred the lines between public, private and homeschooling, it is now most practical to define public education as education which satisfies each state’s mandatory school attendance law. We require students to be educated to achieve a public purpose; education that satisfies this purpose should be considered public education, regardless of how that education is funded, delivered or governed.

I was careful in my post not to assume public education and public schools are synonymous. Most states define public schools as those schools owned and managed by school districts; they also define charter schools as public even though charters are privately owned and managed. Public schools are a subset of public education, but not all of public education.

The accomplished University of South Florida professor, Dr. Sherman Dorn, disagreed with my position in an excellent response to my post, and I’d like to address some of his counterarguments.

Professor Dorn argued that public education refers to education that is “publicly-funded, publicly-controlled, publicly accountable, publicly-accessible, and for public purposes,” but these criteria are so broad and ambiguous they will lead to endless and unproductive debates about what constitutes public education in today’s context of customization. For example, home-schooling at times does and does not fit Dr. Dorn’s criteria. My younger son spent a semester as a homeschooled student taking a full course load at St. Petersburg College. According to Dr. Dorn’s criteria, he was in public education while being homeschooled. But what if he’d only taken two St. Petersburg College courses that term, a third course from the privately-owned Connections Academy through the Florida Virtual School, and two free online course from Stanford University? I guess he would have been 60 percent of a public education student, but that percentage would have fluctuated throughout the day as he worked on various courses.

We run into this same complexity when applying Dr. Dorn’s framework to students enrolled in private schools. Many private school students receive public funding to pay for part or all of their daily instruction. Those portions of their day paid for by public funds seem to fit Dr. Dorn’s criteria, while those portions that are privately funded do not. Again, using Dr. Dorn’s framework, we have students moving in and out of public education on a minute-by-minute basis, and that strikes me as impractical.

Complexities also arise when we drill down into each of Dr. Dorn’s standards.

For instance, he asserts, “One of the obvious ways in which voucher programs are not public education in our modern experience is the lack of accountability.” I’m not sure how he is defining accountability, but let’s assume state-mandated testing is part of his definition. In Florida’s district schools, students are only required to take state assessments in third and tenth grades (even if parents don’t realize they can opt out in other grades). In those two grades, they may take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) or a state approved alternative (i.e., the Stanford 10 or portfolio assessments in third grade; the SAT or ACT tests in tenth grade).  In the tax credit scholarship program I help run, scholarship students attending private schools are required by state law to be assessed in grades three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten, and may take the FCAT or a state approved alternative (most take the Stanford 10). So Florida actually requires more annual assessments of scholarship students than students in district schools. On the other hand, district schools are more heavily regulated than charter or private schools receiving public funds, but most district schools are not as subjected to the accountability of consumer choice.

Dr. Dorn concludes his critique with his most intriguing point: “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.” Our need to reach consensus on our public education goals is a primary reason I prefer a more simple and elegant definition of public education. It’s hard to establish goals for public education when there is so much ambiguity about what it is.

Much of the contentiousness around various school improvement initiatives derives, in part, from confusion and disagreement about the purpose and goals of public schools and public education. When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took office, he decided equity and literacy were the two primary goals of public schools, and he implemented management systems aligned to these goals. Many teachers and suburban parents thought these goals were too narrow and the state’s focus on them too intense, and they’ve been fighting against them ever since. Clarifying the distinctions between public schools, publicly-funded education and public education, and their respective mission and goals, is a necessary first step in helping us all move forward. As part of this defining of roles and responsibilities, we especially need to clarify the parents’ roles and responsibilities.

Dr. Dorn correctly points out that the U.S. Supreme Court gave parents the ultimate authority to determine how their children are to be educated in its 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, but too often some in government and the private sector act as if parents don’t have this authority. That some still question the right of parents to use public funds to educate their children in sectarian schools, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of this right in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, is a good example of this denial of parental authority.

I am grateful to Dr. Dorn for his thoughtful comments, and I am especially grateful for the civil and professional way in which he expressed himself. Our democracy would be much enhanced if more of us followed Sherman Dorn’s example of how to conduct civic discourse.

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Sherman Dorn December 24, 2012 - 7:59 am


Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful response. In terms of the broader historical definition of public education we’ve inherited, I think you’re unrealistic if you hope for an end “to endless and unproductive debates about what constitutes public education.” I don’t think they’re unproductive, but in any case they are inevitable. Once enough Americans bundled education with their definition of citizenship in the early 19th century, they inevitably set the stage for much of the shape of education politics, including debates over the definition and purpose of public education. When students occasionally whine plaintively, “Why can’t we get politics out of education?” I ask them if there’s a way to tie education to citizenship without politics being involved. Same here: how can you tie education to citizenship and not have debates over the boundaries of public education?

In terms of accountability for schools, both state and federal law require local public schools to participate in state assessments and have public labels attached to the schools based on tests. To imply otherwise, as you do here, probably would not hold water with most of our fellow Floridians. To claim that the privately-held test results of individual private schools participating in one of Florida’s voucher program is the same thing as the state’s process of labeling local public schools is a similarly leaky ewer.

Doug Tuthill December 26, 2012 - 1:43 pm

Hi Sherman—Thanks for your comments. I agree with both of them. Politics does permeate public education; always has and always will. And district schools are more heavily regulated than charter and private schools, although my comments about accountability and state testing requirements related to students and not schools. Just because district schools are required to administer the FCAT doesn’t mean their students are required to take it.

My thesis is that customization is redefining public education, and causing many of the traditional markers we’ve used to demarcate public education, such as public funding and ownership, to become increasingly less useful. If you’re willing, we’d love for you to write a guest post explaining to our readers why my analysis is lacking.

Happy Holidays!

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