It’s Time to Redefine Public Education—Again

Published January 12, 2013

Public education has taken many forms over the last 300 years. Early in our history, public education referred to formal instruction in public settings outside the home. As public teaching became increasingly common in the latter half of the 18th century, communities began creating tuition-free schools that operated independently, much like today’s charter schools.

Religious schools receiving public funds to educate the poor were an important part of this evolving public education system in the early 19th century. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, in 1813 most New Yorkers saw publicly funded religious schools “as public or common schools” (p. 164).

Influence of Anti-Catholic Bigotry
The birth of public education as we know it today occurred during the 1840s and ’50s. Catholic immigrants were flooding into urban areas, and community leaders sought an effective and efficient way to assimilate these immigrants into a Protestant-dominated republic. Free public schools open to all whites and teaching Protestant values were the obvious solution.

Massachusetts lawmakers passed the country’s first mandatory school attendance law in 1852. The state was being inundated by newly arriving Catholics. Over the next 50 years, every state eventually followed Massachusetts’ lead, with Mississippi being the last to mandate school attendance, in 1918.

In an attempt to eliminate all Catholic education, Oregon passed a Ku Klux Klan-supported initiative in 1922 requiring all children to attend Protestant-controlled public schools, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this initiative unconstitutional in 1925. This ruling gave parents the ultimate authority—within the constraints of mandatory attendance laws—to determine how their children are educated.

Industrializing Education
The industrial expansion in the late 1800s led to more changes in public education. As urban immigration caused city populations to explode, public school managers embraced the promised efficiencies of assembly lines, standardization, mass production, and command-and-control management. This industrialization of public schooling accelerated in the early 20th century and remains the dominant organizational model in public education.

But another transformation is now occurring. Public education is transitioning from a one-size-fits-all model to a system of customized teaching and learning. As this shift unfolds, what constitutes public education is again changing.

Redefining Public Education
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 learn, to achieve a public purpose. Whatever satisfies this purpose should be considered public education, regardless of how that education is funded, delivered, or governed.

Using criteria such as publicly funded, publicly accountable, or publicly governed to define public education no longer works in an environment where students flow in and out of various learning options each day or even minute. In my home state of Florida, for example, it’s common for students to take courses from multiple public and private providers simultaneously, and for home and private-school students to receive public funding for some or all of their daily instruction.

My younger son spent a semester as a homeschooled student taking a full course load for free at St. Petersburg College. As a homeschooled student he was also able to take free courses from district, charter, and virtual schools. Private school students in Florida have these same opportunities.

Private Schools More Accountable
Some argue that stronger accountability is what distinguishes public from private education, but Florida’s state testing requirements are more rigorous for some publicly funded private school students than for students in district schools.

Florida’s district students must take state assessments in third and tenth grades, and may take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or a state-approved alternative (i.e., the Stanford 10 or portfolio assessments in third grade, and the SAT and ACT tests in tenth grade). In the Florida tax-credit scholarship program I help run, state law requires scholarship students attending private schools to take tests in grades three through ten, and they may take the FCAT or a state-approved alternative—most take the Stanford 10. Thus Florida actually requires more annual assessments of scholarship students than students in district schools.

Distinctions to Clarify
Clarifying the distinctions between public schools, publicly funded education, and public education, and aligning what constitutes public education to the purposes underlying school attendance laws, should enhance our dialogue about how best to improve, manage, and regulate public education in the future.

For example, should all students who are meeting a state’s attendance law be required to master the same learning standards and take the same tests? Should all learning options—public, private, and home—be subject to the same regulations and accountability system? How should we fund a system in which students take courses from multiple providers in multiple states? How do we manage and share student records in such a diverse and dispersed system? And how do we provide parents with the information they need to make the best schooling choices for their children?

As customization increasingly replaces the industrial assembly line as public education’s preferred organizational model, we’ll need to redefine public education accordingly. And if history is any guide, this redefinition will be one of many over the next 300 years.

Doug Tuthill ([email protected] ) is a former professor, classroom teacher, and union president. He is now president of Step Up For Students, a tax-credit scholarship nonprofit in Florida. The Cremin quotes come from Cremin’s book, American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876.

Image by Lane Pearman.