Do public schools really serve the public?

Far too many government schools appear to be failing

■ Larry Sand / Contributed

On Nov. 16, 2017, the United Teachers of Los Angeles held a “Save Our Schools” rally, which was part of the larger American Education Week, a National Education Association creation. Touting NEA’s 2017 theme, “Public Schools for all,” union President Lily Eskelsen García emphatically stated “Public schools are the cornerstone of our communities. We welcome students of all backgrounds, abilities, and incomes, and each of us plays a role in ensuring our schools are open to all.”
But is her statement really true? Are they really open to all?
Ben DeGrow, Mackinac Center director of education policy, pokes a few holes in the statement. He rightfully points out that some special education kids in public schools are sent to private facilities that can better help the child. Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, says in those cases “it’s okay to choose private schools as long as the public schools do the choosing.”
Additionally, many school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, operate selective magnet schools, some of which require a test or other specific requirements for admission. Enlow explains that in Chicago, “selective schools enroll kids based on test scores, and they are now a huge chunk of the high school marketplace.”
Most importantly, public school admissions are typically based on geography. And because most people self-segregate, students invariably wind up in segregated schools. I pity the inner-city parent who tries to get their kid out of a failing public school, and into one in a higher performing district in another part of town. Because this type of choice is usually outlawed, public schools are the most segregated institution in America today.
Perhaps the best analysis and exposure of public school mythology comes from the late Cato Institute scholar Andrew Coulson. Writing in 1999, Coulson starts with an historical perspective, going back to the 1830s, when a group of dedicated reformers declared that government involvement was needed to ensure all children get a better, more unified education.
“Led by Bostonian Horace Mann, the reformers campaigned for a greater state role in education. They argued that a universal, centrally planned system of tax-funded schools would be superior in every respect to the seemingly disorganized market of independent schools that existed at the time. Shifting the reins of educational power from private to public hands would, they promised, yield better teaching methods and materials, greater efficiency, superior service to the poor, and a stronger, more cohesive nation. Mann even ventured the prediction that if public schooling were widely adopted and given enough time to work, ‘nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete,’ and ‘the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.’”
While Mann’s utopian goals obviously didn’t work out as planned, they did create a link in people’s minds between the “institution of public schooling and the ideals of public education” which tragically still exists.

While most fields of human endeavor have seen astonishing growth and improvement over the course of the past century…educational achievement alone has stagnated.”


Coulson, who studied school systems all over the world, starting in ancient Greece, rightfully asserts, “The bulk of evidence, both historical and modern, points to the superiority of markets (supplemented with a mechanism for subsidizing the education of low-income children) over state school systems in their ability to serve the poor. Throughout history, low-income parents have consistently made better educational decisions for their own children than government experts have made for them, no matter how well intentioned those experts have been. Poor parents, indeed all parents, need to be empowered to once again take control of their children’s education.” (Emphasis added.)
Coulson continues: “While most fields of human endeavor have seen astonishing growth and improvement over the course of the past century–while whole new industries have been created and general intelligence has steadily increased–educational achievement alone has stagnated, a fossilized legacy of central planning and good intentions gone awry.”
Yes, while educrats may indeed be well-intended, too many government schools are failing. Those who run what Coulson referred to as “School, Inc.,” the central planners and powerful teacher unions, are pitted against parents who really know what’s best for their kids. The good news is that we have a U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who understands the problem and is a strong proponent of parental choice.
And choice is indeed ascendant across the country. As of July 2017, 446,000 students were enrolled in 61 different private school choice programs in 30 states and D.C., but given that’s not even 1 percent of the total k-12 population, we have a long way to go to get out of the educational hole we have dug.
The myth that public schools serve all children needs to be put to rest. And at the same time, we must recognize that many whom it does serve, are not being well served. If we really want the public to be educated, we must end public schooling as we know it.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own. This article was originally published by California Policy Center, an educational nonprofit focused on public policies that aim to improve California’s democracy and economy. This article has been edited for style; to read the original, which includes hotlinks, visit

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