CharterFolk Contributor Robert Enlow – What is Public about Public Education?

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are pleased to present a Contributor Column from Robert Enlow, the President and CEO of EdChoice.

I provide a bio for Robert below:

Robert Enlow serves as the President and CEO of EdChoice, which under Robert’s leadership has become one of the nation’s most respected and successful advocacy organizations supporting educational choice. Robert and his team work in dozens of states to advance parental freedom in education by disseminating research, undertaking training, sponsoring seminars, conducting advertising campaigns and investing in and organizing community leaders. Before the establishment of EdChoice in 2016, Robert was an integral part of the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice where he served in many roles before being named President and CEO in 2009. Earlier, Robert lived and worked in England where he supported the St. Botolph’s Project, an organization providing care and services to homeless men, women and families, and where he attended Oxford University from 1990-1992. Robert serves on numerous boards, including School Choice Ohio, Hoosiers for Quality Education, Institute for Quality Education, and the Economic Club of Indiana. He lives in Indianapolis and has two children, Jefferson and Charles.

I will also add that I have been eager to present ideas from those working on broader school choice advocacy about how their efforts align with a shared North Star of making our country’s public education offerings greatly more public than they are today. Thank you very much to Robert for so smartly penning a column that does just that.

Let’s get on to his post.

What is “Public” About Public Education?

I’ve been in the education reform movement for a long time. I’ve been there for the highs and the lows, the kumbaya moments when charter and private school choice advocates shared victories and the frosty moments when advocates drew ideological lines in the sand.

Moreover, I’ve seen my fair share of debates, discussions, and squabbles about what the American school system should look like, how it should be funded, and who should operate it.

There are few issues in K-12 education subject to more muddied thinking than the word “public” in “public schools.” The term “public school” is tossed out without thinking about what it means. Or, more likely, the terms “public education” and “public school” get used synonymously when they really don’t mean the same thing at all. And it all gets conflated with the notion of education as a “public good.”

The question we should focus on is: What’s actually “public” about public schooling, and what do we really mean when we talk about it as a public good.

From an economic perspective, a public good is defined as “a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or a private individual or organization.” K-12 education does not meet that standard because it is both excludable and rivalrous. Even if we use the more common definition of the word—something that benefits the public—K-12 education still falls short.

While it is absolutely true that we as a community see the benefits of a more educated populace in terms of a better functioning democracy and a more vibrant economy, the vast majority of the benefits of education accrue to the individual. Better-educated people make more money and live longer, healthier lives.

But those who speak of education as a solely private good without considering the benefits to others get it wrong as well. While it is true that the majority of the benefit of education accrues to the individual, not all of it does. As Milton Friedman argued, there are “spillover” or “neighborhood” effects of education, and, as a result, the government has a legitimate and important role in funding and, to a lesser extent, maintaining a system of publicly run schools. But, that is all a far cry from the government owning, operating and managing schools.

The simple fact is that the benefits of education accrue to you (society) and to me (individual). The public good should be the outcome, not the process.  

The problem is that the current public school system really isn’t all that public. Going back to Horace Mann, the idea of public, common, schools is that they are places of open access, funded by the community, where all of the community’s children mix together and are educated together in the knowledge and values that the community finds important. This does not happen in America.

Not only does Mann’s conception of common schooling have roots in anti-Catholic bigotry, our schools today are racially and economically segregated by the school district boundaries that school boards and bureaucrats draw, many of which are based on an old, racist system of redlining developed under the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Moreover, schools frequently teach things that either the majority or significant minorities of community members don’t agree with.

School board elections, the supposed democratic check on school operations, are often conducted off-cycle, driving down turnout and allowing special interest groups to dominate debate. Just Google “average voter turnout in school board elections,” and you will find plenty of articles about low or abysmal turnout. Even if it is an elected board, it is hardly public if only a fraction of the public participates. And let’s not get started about the lack of financial oversight within our public school system today. Revenues do not line up with expenses, reporting varies wildly, and fraud is rampant in a system that hasn’t been modernized since the 1970s.

All of this makes me wonder if what we call “public school” is simply a cover to create a nostalgic feeling while ignoring the reality. And, for the life of me, it makes me wonder why Charter Schools, or any schools for that matter, would want to be called public schools if that is how it is defined.

Ironically, there are many charter and private schools that are more public than public schools. Take the Oaks Academy, an urban private school in Indianapolis. For more than 20 years, the Oaks Academy has provided a classical, Christian education to an intentionally racially and economically diverse set of students. It is also one of top performing school systems in the state. This is an example of a “private” school that is doing a great job accomplishing the mission of public education. You could also take Paramount Charter School, another great Indianapolis charter, and find the same thing.

After all that’s happened in the last year, tt’s little wonder support is so high for alternatives to the traditional public system, whether that’s charter schools, private schools, homeschooling or other schooling types that better meet the needs of families and students.

In our research, we have found that parents gravitate toward schools that align with their values and beliefs. They don’t want a public good; they want a school that mirrors what they are teaching at home. In a diverse, pluralistic democracy, that is how it should work, and that’s why it’s so important to have those options available to all.

There is no one best system of education in America. There is no one set curriculum or one set organizational model that every school should follow. Diverse schools are needed to meet the diverse needs and wants of a diverse populace. Only a bottom-up, parent-driven system will be able to accomplish that.

We absolutely should not confuse the mechanism of public education (the traditional system organized around school districts with the geographic allocation of students to schools) with the idea of public education (the obligation that we all have to fund and operate schools that will instill in our children the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in life).

Rather, we should focus on what is truly public about public education, namely that it is publicly funded and that the results of schooling benefit all of us. It should simply not matter where you go to learn.

After 25 years of fighting for educational freedom for all families, that’s the definition of public education that matters most to me.