‘Public Education’ Not Easy to Define

Questions raised by rally for more school funding

The Detroit Free Press reports that hundreds of demonstrators came out on Saturday, July 22, to call for more school funding. They rallied under the nondescript banner of the March for Public Education, a coordinated national effort in at least 16 different cities.

Yet the very appearance of this group raises thorny questions about what qualifies as public education and how to distinguish it from other types of learning. The group’s own definition of “public education” clearly misses the mark.

“Public schools are schools that receive federal funding towards their operation,” the March for Public Education’s founders say. “This includes the traditional neighborhood public school as well as not-for-profit charter schools.”

Yet public schools universally work with profit-making entities to advance their work, just in different degrees. About 70 percent of conventional school districts contract with private vendors for major non-instructional services, and all districts purchase books and other instructional materials from for-profit entities.

Making federal funds a litmus test produces some unusual results. Last year, Michigan’s tiny Bangor Township School District #8 received no dollars from Washington, D.C., but certainly didn’t lose its public school status. Not-for-profit charters in Ann Arbor (Washtenaw Technical Middle College) and Cedar Springs (Creative Technologies Academy) have not received any federal dollars since 2012. The Alternative Education Academies of Iosco County and Ogemaw County have never taken a dime in federal money.

Most Michigan charters, including those that contract with for-profit operators to oversee instruction, do receive federal funds. So do private schools that participate in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives low-income families in the nation’s capital federal dollars to choose education options outside the public system.

Not surprisingly, the March for Public Education opposes such voucher programs, describing them as “generally funded by state governments that offer parents reimbursements for their public school costs to be used toward private school tuition.” If more federal funds supported private school operations through parental choice, though, the group would have to reassess its definition.

One of the most common ways to distinguish public schools from private schools is to say that they must accept all students. While this claim is generally accurate, it is not true that any public school must accept any student. Districts may place a special-needs child in a public center-based program or a private treatment facility. And unlike public charter schools, districts may operate magnet schools with testing or other admission standards. Detroit just converted a fourth high school to a “preparatory examination school.” Not everyone can get into that school.

If a family can’t afford to live in a district with higher-performing schools, their access is further limited. Schools of Choice allows students to enroll across district lines, but individual districts may be off-limits. Like Ohio, which has a similar law, Michigan has its share of “walled districts” that refuse to let in any students from outside.

Grosse Pointe, which was represented by a former school official at the March for Public Education podium, earlier this year debated a proposal to charge non-residents up to $13,000 in tuition to attend. While the local board ultimately rejected the proposal, a handful of other Michigan districts do in fact charge tuition for outsiders. So “public school” does not always mean “tuition-free,” and a tuition charge does not by itself make a school private.

Despite a dearth of evidence that more funding is the solution for current inequities and shortcomings in public education, that’s what those involved in the Detroit rally want. The Free Press quoted the local rally’s representatives as saying that district schools are underfunded. Yet Michigan schools spend $12,000 or more per student. Michigan’s latest budget adds $525 million in state spending for K-12 education, an increase of 3.7 percent. That comes even though the number of students enrolled is expected to drop for yet another year.

“We believe that school funding should be based on school and student need,” the March for Public Education asserts.

As many dollars as possible should follow students to the place their family believes will give them the best chance at success. Public education should be about ensuring as many children as possible are educated and prepared to succeed in adult life. Whether those schools get federal funding or are managed as for-profit institutions ought to be irrelevant as long as they do the job of public education.