“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.

Taking the Public out of Public Schools

July 1, 2008

One of the arguments regularly trotted out against school choice is that public schools, whatever their academic defects, are at least accountable to the public in what they teach and how they operate.  And while private schools may be accountable to the parents of students who attend, they are not broadly accountable to the public in what they teach and how they operate.  Vouchers are bad, the argument goes, because public money goes to schools that are not really accountable to the public.

In light of yesterday’s post on wide-spread non-compliance by Georgia public schools with the state’s social promotion law, people who like to make this argument might want to reconsider. 

In general, I am struck by how little public accountability there can be in public schools.  As mentioned yesterday and in past postings on this blog, getting public schools to implement policies that the public adopts, through their elected representatives, is an enormous challenge.  If public school officials or educators prefer not to implement a policy they have remarkable latitude not to do it or to do it in a way that severely undermines or negates the purpose of the policy. 

Monitoring what schools actually do is extremely difficult because what happens in schools and classrooms behind closed doors is rarely seen by anyone other than the staff and students.  And even when non-compliance is observed, imposing sanctions is next to impossible.  I’ll wager that no teacher, principal, or superintendent in Georgia will lose his or her job or suffer in any other way for disobeying the law that they retain certain students.

Even in the age of NCLB, with wide-spread testing, obtaining meaningful school data can be a nightmare.  If researchers want to assess school policies or approaches they need access to individual student test and demographic data stripped of identifying information.  Requests for individual student data (with no identifying information) are regularly rejected on the false grounds that student privacy prevents releasing those data.  If there is no identifying information, then there is no threat to student privacy.  States and districts should post identity-stripped individual student data on the web for anyone to analyze.  Instead, they require proposals, inquire about purposes, assess whether the research could be embarrassing, drag their feet, and regularly turn those proposals down.

I was once even refused aggregate data for schools in a district in Massachusetts.  They claimed that they would only release the average test scores for schools if I could prove that I was a resident of their district.  What if I wanted to move there?  Too bad.

On another occasion a school official in Arizona refused to provide information on how many student were enrolled in each grade broken out by race and ethnicity.  I just wanted a count of students.  When asked why he wouldn’t provide the data, the official said that it sounded like we were trying to estimate graduation rates and he wouldn’t help us do that because we might report grad rates that were different from those reported by the state.  He actually said that out loud.

If the public isn’t allowed to know information as basic as how many students are enrolled in school, how public are those schools really?  The Arizona official acted as if they were his schools, not public schools because he could decide whether to share information based on whether it would be flattering to him or not.  Really, it should be none of his business why I want public information.  They’re my schools, too.