What If There's No Such Thing as a Public School?
Education has always been for paying customers only
Zachary Wright | Contributing Editor
I walked passed a coffee-shop the other day and saw a sign I have seen millions of times. But, something was different about this one. It really made me think.
The sign read: No Public Restrooms. Paying Customers Only.
I got to thinking about the definition of ‘public.’ What makes something public, exactly? In this case, a public restroom would be one that anybody could walk in and use, regardless of whether they purchased a coffee or not. The restroom is then, quite literally, for everybody and is, therefore, public.
By this definition, there is no such thing as a public school in the United States. Education is for paying customers only.
Let’s break it down for a second by school type.
Private schools, of which there are more than 22,000 in the US, are obviously not for everybody and are quite literally for paying customers only, and boy do they pay. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average national tuition for attending private schools in the U.S. is $12,350 per year for K-12 schools and $16,040 per year for private high schools. The average private school family therefore pays $64,000 to send one child to high school and a whopping $150,000 to pay for K-12. The cost of some of the most coveted of these schools can rise as high as $50,000 per year if not higher. Private schools are, therefore, clearly for paying customers only.
Parochial schools are similarly not for everybody, but for the paying customer. The average cost to attend the average Catholic elementary school is nearly $5,000. Other religious schools share similar price tags as well as proof of religious affiliation. Parochial schools too are therefore for paying customers only.
So far this is not a surprise. But what about traditional public schools? Surely those are for everybody, not just paying customers, right?
The vast majority of traditional public schools in America are neighborhood schools meaning that they serve students who live within defined boundaries, sometimes called catchment zones. Not just anybody can walk into these schools and enroll their child. Proof of residency is required upon enrollment, oftentimes multiple proofs, including: lease agreements, drivers license, recent bills, and even deeds to a home. Such schools are, therefore, not truly public as they require proof of purchase to access, making students and their families paying customers.
Ok, but what about public schools that draw from multiple neighborhoods and communities, like magnet schools or public charter schools? Surely since they cast a wider net, they are public?
Magnet schools and public charter schools are more idiosyncratic than traditional neighborhood schools; they vary somewhat considerably in their enrollment practices from school to school, but at the most basic level of understanding, not just anybody can enroll in these schools. Attending magnet schools often require proof of excellent academic achievement or specialized talent. Competition for spots is fierce with acceptance rates of only 10-20 percent. No school can be truly public if 8 out of every 10 students is denied access.
That leaves lottery-based schools; schools that enroll students based upon more-or-less random lotteries. These schools, most of which are public charter schools, use lottery systems wherein parents register their child for the lottery sometimes in person, online, or both. Students are electronically and randomly selected for enrollment without an application process, supportive essays, scores, or letters of recommendation. The result, it would seem, is perhaps the most public-ish option as everyone has purportedly the same amount of access. Essentially, everybody can walk into the coffee shop to try and use the bathroom, but not everybody will find a vacant stall.
What’s important to understand is that for all the talk about public education in this country, one could argue very convincingly that there is no such thing as a public school, nor has there ever been one. Education is not for anybody walking in off the street. It’s just for paying customers only.
The sooner we face that fact, the sooner we can get down to the real business of educational justice.