Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Makes a Public School “Public”?

        The focus of this month’s post is to identify attributes that makes a public school “public.” In this regard, funding, governance, accountability, and access will be discussed.  Certainly such a discussion needs to respect the history of public education.  However, this paper is grounded in the perspective that it is essential to recognize the historical service of public education to understand how public education has been continuously evolving and must continue to do so in the future to satisfy its primary purpose.
      The main purpose of public education in the United States has consistently been to develop an informed populace.  Jefferson (1786) wrote, "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."  Despite this desire communicated by a Founding Father, the United States Constitution does not guarantee the right to an education, rather, through the Tenth Amendment such powers were delegated to the States.  It was not until 1918 that every State had enacted compulsory education laws (Swift, 1923).  The result of compulsory education has been public funding for public education. 

Although public funds are typically understood to be taxes, different states use taxes differently to pay for its schools.  Many States use its state income tax as a primary source for funding its public schools while other States use property taxes, which have been shown to create the greatest disparity between districts and even other States (Kozol, 2005).  While taxes continue to be the most common form of revenue for funding public education, another popular revenue source has been state lotteries.  While lotteries are not taxes, their use raises the question of the ethics of a culture using gambling as a revenue stream to pay for its public education.  Furthermore, Pierce and Miller (2004) found education spending initially gets a significant bump from a state lottery but beyond the first year, the rate of increase on education spending actually tends to slow to the point that after the seventh or eighth year less money is spent on education than would have been spent if the state didn't have a lottery at all. Federal funds for public education, which come from federal income taxes or deficit spending, have also become a significant source of revenue for public schools.  Until 1979, the local contribution to public education primarily from local taxes exceeded the State’s share.  Currently State and Federal funding accounts for nearly 60% of the overall revenue provided to public schools.  In terms of local control, there is a definite cost associated to these funding streams. 

Local control has long been a desired element of public education.  During the last half of the twentieth century, local school districts increasingly yielded policy-making discretion to State legislatures and State Education Agencies.  As a result of increased State funding related to following State mandates for promoting equity while improving student proficiency and teacher performance; local control over funding and curricular content has diminished as local districts needed to promote the State’s standards.  Kirst (1988) cited evidence suggesting most significant reform occurs when individual schools are given more responsibility, rather than less.  This can certainly be evidenced through successful reform efforts linked to the movement toward school-based management.  As a result of the adoption of school based management to promote educational reform, the power related to the governance of a specific public school has shifted.  For the most part, in these instances the power of the elected or appointed school board has been reduced to hiring the district’s superintendent and developing the district’s public school budget.  Related to school administrators, state education agency officers, elected or appointed members of the local board of education, teachers and teacher unions, parents, and the students themselves, Marburger (1978) identified three primary concerns of these stakeholder or decision-making groups that involve their diverse roles, consolidation of power, and ability to enact change.  Marburger advocated for improved parental empowerment through an elected council of parents and citizens being established in each individual school or collectively within any district with more than one-thousand students.  Historically, attempts to improve public education have been difficult because of the need to build consensus.  Tamir (2011) believes efforts in this regard “are met by the unspoken though persistent resentment of those who fear the transformative power of education and would like to preserve the present social order” (p. 395).  As Tamir notes, this is true of emerging global democracies as well as the United States.  Certainly this would be more problematic for schools involving many low socio-economic families relying upon legislators from wealthier districts.  Assuring parents are empowered at the local school level can restore the element of local control and accountability that was lost when the State Education Agencies demanded adherence to their standards based curriculum and accountability system.  Although increasing parent involvement and school based management will bring accountability closer to home, these reform efforts alone will not improve student outcomes.

Starting with A Nation at Risk (1983) through the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, PL 98-10) now known as the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the effectiveness of public schools has been politicized as education reform was predicated on the call to fix a broken system.  Although most urban cities have their high school gems, such as Stuyvesant High School in New York City or Boston Latin High School in Boston Massachusetts, the academic and funding disparity between the non-elite urban public high schools and wealthy suburbs makes any discussion of closing the achievement gap laughable. 

Whereas Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education and The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) were landmark achievements in public education allowing public schools to become accessible to all students regardless of race or (dis)ability, the pervasive lack of equity in quality makes accessibility only physical in nature.  True accountability needs to ensure accessibility to equity in quality (EDA 805, Module 1 Lecture).  The common factor in both the Brown case and PL-94-142 is civil rights.

An essential mandate of PL 94-142, since reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004), is the requirement for the provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).  Just as when trying to determine the “appropriateness” of a placement for a student with a disability so too is it essential to consider the appropriateness of placement of any student in a public school that has demonstrated failure to adequately educate its student population.  Public education does not merely mean access to a school funded by public dollars or governed by an elected or appointed school board.  Effective public education entails providing access to an educational institution that is responsible for serving the needs of the community and the students it serves.  Given the diversity of these United States of America, choices for a public education must also become diverse while being grounded in equity in quality.

As public education options continue to diversify as quickly as its student populations, schooling alternatives will emerge along with new approaches to government funding and oversight (Hill & Johnston, 2010). It is forecast that a large percentage of future students could attend schools very differently than evidenced by the current dominant model, whereby students and career teachers are in contact throughout the day and in which teachers are fully responsible for all aspects of the learning process ranging from teaching, remediating, enriching, and assessing the students’ current proficiencies and then correcting deficiencies as needed.  Up to half of the students that will receive education in alternate schools will have their education paid for with government funds (Hill & Johnston, 2010).  Alternatives to the current model of public education will be a result of four factors: expansion of technology, changes in the United States economy, innovations in the public sector-especially large urban districts, and the increased commitment to more stringent national standards.  These four factors will offset the reluctance to change that is driven by historical perspectives involving local control of funding, governance, accountability, and access.  It is predicted that three alternate forms of schooling: virtual schools, hybrid schools, and broker schools, will become sufficiently common as to be perceived by both teachers and parents as “normal” (Hill & Johnston, 2010, p. 44).  Since hybrid schools and broker schools are usually based on a charter, these models can already be seen in growing numbers under the category known as Charter Schools!    


Casteen, J.T. (1995) UVA: The president’s report.


Davis Jr., O. L. (2004). Now Is The Time For Americans To Listen and To Talk Straight About

            Schooling. Journal of Curriculum & Supervision. pp. 1-4.

Hill, P. & Johnston, M. (2010) In the Future, Diverse Approaches to Schooling. Phi Delta

            Kappan, 92(3), 43-47.

Kozol, J. (2005). The Shame of the Nation. Random House

Pierce, P.A and Miller, D.E. (2004) Gambling Politics: State Government and the Business of

            Betting Lynne Rienner Publishing.

Tamir, Y. (2011). Staying In Control; Or, What Do We Really Want Public Education To

            Achieve?. Educational Theory, 61(4), 395-411. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5446.2011.00411.x