‘Public’ schools?

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A recent article in the New York Times described, and in general, approved a particular system of education choice for parents of school children. Once again, however, the Times reports the frustration of lower-income families whose very able child doesn’t quite make it into one of the super-schools – called “public” – which are populated principally by the children of non-black parents.

The predominant racial group actually admitted is Asian; these children are the champs on the decisive eligibility exam. So superior are they on the determining test that their enrollment in the super-schools has been limited by quota – yes, by race – lest the whole scheme become an embarrassment. However, the system has not made corresponding concessions to black aspirants; the premier school, Stuyvesant High, will admit a total of seven students this year.

Is it wrong to suggest that large cities such as New York that operate such exclusive schools are merely the government’s way of championing parental choice for a small elite? The scheme is a curious mini-parallel to Milton Friedman’s free market vision: Let the parent plead, but let the school make the decision in all cases.

Are such schools truly “public”? And, as we reflect on the meaning of that adjective, must we not ask the same of government schools in our affluent residential areas? The financially able family, like my own, carefully chooses its residence so as to qualify for the government school it prefers – and pays for it, as it would pay tuition. Does America have a truly public school system? Or do the well-off choose and the rest get drafted?

Whatever we call this picture, is it truly so bad? After all, we hear that the poor parent – so often a single mother – is scarcely competent to decide among school options. Perhaps the child should be summoned by law to a government school that teaches good citizenship.

Little Joe and Sally need to be rescued from the peculiar notions of the good American life so typical of the poor. The child should be spared the untutored parent’s preference for loosely regulated charter and private schools. Oh, and incidentally, the teachers union chiefs know best what is right for the child of the poor; their unselfish command and control of poor families must be preserved!

Since I first wrote about Chicago’s “public” schools for the federal government in 1962, these urban monoliths have remained basically unaltered in their operating mode. The one major difference is the doubling of per-pupil spending (in adjusted dollars) in harmony with the advancing control by the union. Good for that individual teacher who deserved it, though most dollars went for non-teaching staff and union officers.

Sadly, the growing rule by the union has improved little but the income of those others. By recently making union membership voluntary, the Supreme Court has taken the first step toward sanity and justice; but there remains a long road to that sane and workable system of unions that holds in private industry where overreach by the union can end its employers’ existence – and its jobs.

I have simply assumed here that the word “public” means open to all, rich or poor. On that premise, America has never had schools that qualify. If the well-off prefers the rich suburb, she buys her way in. If she struggles to serve her family, the state simply conscripts the child. Looking at New York City, we see that Stuyvesant High School is a form of parental choice reserved to the mothers and fathers of a certain sort of child.

I haven’t said that this is evil; I prefer parental choice in various forms. But is this “public”?

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