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What Are "Public" Schools?
By David W. Kirkpatrick (May 08, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
Shakespeare wrote "That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet." True, but would it be as acceptable? What man would dare bring his wife a dozen skunkweed? And how many wives would want them?
Words make a difference.
Consider the responses a young man would get if he told his lady love that when he looks at her time stands still, in contrast to telling her she has a face that would stop a clock..
More seriously, those who set the terms of a debate may not win but they certainly have a head start.
There is growing consideration as to what a "public" school is and recognition that the current use of the term is at least unnecessarily narrow and can be said to be misleading.
The working definition of words is ultimately whatever is most widely accepted and virtually everyone uses "public schools" to mean the current government owned and operated system. Government owned and operated is, by definition, socialism but to say so upsets the education establishment. A few persons have begun to use the term "government schools" as being more accurate.
To this many in the school establishment vehemently object. Like a character in Alice in Wonderland they want words to mean exactly what they say. They realize that to speak of "public" schools is more effective than to talk about "private" schools, especially when attempting to persuade taxpayers to foot the bill for them.
Yet this was not preordained. As Milton Friedman pointed out, government uses tanks, planes and ships but does not own factories that manufacture them. Similarly, it uses private construction companies to build public buildings and highways. Yet somehow it eased into owning and operating an education delivery system even though that required overcoming strong public opposition, a history that has long since been forgotten, if ever recalled at all.. Private institutions which died did not do so because they didn't work but because they couldn't compete with a publicly funded "free" monopoly.
A school, whether supported by public or private funds, open to any child who wishes to attend is arguably in the public interest and thus a public school. That hasn't become a generally accepted perception and so the current terminology prevails. Many citizens who have tried to influence decisions and actions of government schools have discovered they aren't quite so "public" after all. "Private" schools are often much more responsive if only because parents may withdraw their children and stop paying tuition if they are treated too cavalierly.
Many "private" schools can be more "public" than traditional public schools. "Public" school students, for example, must live within specified attendance areas. This may be the entire school district in the case of a small one, but attendance is still geographically based. In larger districts even students living in the district are rarely permitted to attend a school other than the one to which they are not only geographically but even intentionally assigned.
"Private" schools generally have no geographic attendance limitations and may even offer scholarships so students can attend who otherwise couldn't afford it. In the nation's more than 14,000 public school districts such aid to attract nonresident students is extremely rare. To the contrary, many public school systems hire investigators to make sure such students are excluded.
It could further be argued that "private" schools are more public because they educate millions of youngsters, about five million at the moment, at no or little cost to the public purse/taxpayer. Everyone agrees that an educated citizenry is in the public interest. Doing so at little or no public cost, these schools clearly meet this definition.
Since educating the average public school student currently costs about $10,000 per year, five million students being educated at private expense save taxpayers about $50 billion annually. As the average nonpublic school educates its youngsters at less cost than the public schools they are also more efficient.
To change the interpretation of what constitutes "public" or "private" as applied to schools to more accurately reflect reality is difficult to say the least.
Which doesn't mean it's wrong.
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"Americans, with our supposed love of freedom and democracy, never question the right of the state to proselytize children. That to me is one of the great affronts to human liberty." --Gore Vidal, p. 44, MM Interview, pp 62-70, Tom Wicker, Modern Maturity, April-May 1994.
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633