“Public Schooling” Is a Myth

June 5, 2017

The answer is the same for the question: “Do ‘public schools’ serve all students?” Image credit: Snopes.

(Guest Post by Robert Enlow)

Some urban legends just won’t die no matter how many times they are disproven. My favorite is the one that sucked me in during college—the one where Phil Collins wrote the song “In the Air Tonight” after watching a friend refuse to help someone drowning. I admit that one had me going for a while.

In K-12 education, there is an even greater urban legend: that public schools accept all students. This legend is a huge porker that has been repeated so many times that almost everyone believes it is true.

But it isn’t, and it never has been.

First, people in power have always gamed the system. The powerful do it in our nation’s capital, according to a  report released recently by the U.S. Inspector General. The report found that the former D.C. Public School Superintendent, Kaya Henderson, regularly helped her wealthy constituents and friends game the public school lottery.

They do it in New York, where Deputy Mayor Richard Buery used every trick in the book to get his son into a prestigious public school.

And they are doing it like crazy in Chicago, where some public schools regularly over-inflated their enrollment numbers so they could get more money.

I can hear the wailing chorus now: There may be problems with some schools showing favoritism, but every public school really does accept every kid who comes to their doors. That’s the public school way.

But is it? What about the massive increase in selective admission public schools or magnet schools? In Chicago, selective schools enroll kids based on test scores, and they are now a huge chunk of the high school marketplace. Across the country, according to data at the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of selective enrollment magnet schools grew from 2,722 in 2010-11 to 3,254 in 2013-14. That is an increase of more than 500 schools in just three years.

And what about some of our most vulnerable special needs students? Surely, every single public school accepts every single student with disabilities. Think again. Public schools often contract with private schools or private companies to serve children who they can’t serve. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics almost 260,000 children in America, or 4 percent of all special needs students, fall into this category.

Moreover, any quick review of the headlines will show numerous stories showing that not every public school is adequately serving every child with special needs even though they have a legal obligation to do so. The simple fact is that not every public school is equipped—or required—to serve every type of disability. Public school districts can build public schools that specialize in children with specific disabilities such as autism. Or they can create alternative schools.

So, let’s not forget what most of us know but won’t admit: that it’s okay to choose private schools as long as the public schools do the choosing.

The legend says that public schools accept all comers. That is simply not true, and it never has been.

In fact, the entire system is set up to ensure that public schools don’t really accept all comers. That’s because attendance in public schools is based on geography—on where people live. What this means in practice is that public schools accept all kids who look like each other or who live in similar types of houses and whose family income is the same. K-12 public schools are more segregated by race and income than ever before.

And do you know what happens when a parent tries to cross the public school line or lies about where they live to go to a better school? The school districts use public dollars to hire private investigators to tail parents to check where they actually live. Then they send them to jail.

Not every student can actually attend every public school, and not every public school accepts and serves every child.

It’s time for a serious debate on how we can best serve all kids, regardless of where they live or where they go to school. And it’s past time for the urban legend that public schools serve all to die.

Robert C. Enlow is President and CEO of EdChoice.

More Money Myth

April 20, 2008

An article in today’s LA Times illustrates how the money myth is alive and well.  The piece by Seema Mehta focuses on private fund-raising efforts in California that are seeking to off-set proposed budget cuts. 

The article, and the people quoted in it, wish to establish 1) that California spends far too little on education, which is demonstrated by the alleged fact that it spends less per pupil than almost all other states; 2) that private fund-raising is necessary to make a significant difference in remedying those perceived shortfalls; and 3) that inequities in the capacity of different communities to engage in private fund-raising is a significant contributor to inequities in student achievement between those communities. 

All three of these claims are inconsistent with the available evidence. Mehta attempts to establish the first claim that California spends far less than most states by asserting, “The state ranks 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending.”  According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent Digest of Education Statistics, total per pupil spending in California ranked 23rd of the 51 states and DC, not 46th.  Total per pupil spending was $9,655, trailing the national average of $10,071, but not by much.  It’s true that the cost of living is higher in California.  Perhaps it would be desirable for California to spend more.  But the claim that California woefully under-spends on education would have to be supported by systematic evidence, none of which is provided in the article — other than the false ranking.

The second claim that private fund-raising is an essential part of overcoming budget shortfalls is also inconsistent with the evidence.  In a chapter I wrote for Rick Hess’s book on education philanthropy, With the Best of Intentions, I found that total private giving to public education is a tiny portion of total spending on schools.  All giving, from the bake sale to the Gates Foundation, makes up less than one-third of 1% of total spending.  It’s basically rounding error.  This is not to say that private giving to public schools can’t do some good.  It’s just completely unrealistic to expect private funding to make-up for or significantly supplement public funding.  The taxing power of the government generates over half a trillion dollars each year for public education, which would entirely consume the net worth of the 12 richest people in the world in a single year. 

But the LA Times article suggests that private giving can (and must) make a big difference.  It cites the example of the Irvine Public Schools, which receives $3 million annually from a community foundation.  it also quotes the head of that foundation saying, “The only way to take good districts and make them great is to do private fund-raising. But it’s even more urgent now with the terrible budget cuts.”  Nowhere does the article mention that this $3 million represents less than 1% of the total spending by the district.  Numerators always feel bigger without denominators.

The third claim that inequities in private fund-raising are exacerbating inequities in student achievement pre-supposes that the private giving makes a big difference in the wealthier districts.  It also pre-supposes, contrary to the bulk of rigorous research, that variation in spending is a significant factor in explaining variation in achievement.  It’s not.  So, if private giving is a tiny portion of total spending — even in the wealthy districts — and per pupil spending does not significantly account for achievement, it’s not clear why the article would fret that inequities in giving were a problem for the achievement gap.  But the article does, quoting state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, “Parents in well-to-do communities can raise significant sums of money to augment their local schools’ budgets, while schools in low-income neighborhoods fall further behind. This is part of the reason that we have an achievement gap in California. We have an economic and moral imperative to close this gap.”

The only way the money myth will fade is if reporters and newspapers are held accountable for repeating it.