Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, has called for a moratorium on charter-school funding. Fortunately, even if he were president, he’d have little to no control to effect such a thing. It’s an issue left to the states, and even the incumbent, Donald Trump, has called for collapsing the small amount of federal money allocated to charter schools into a block grant. Teachers’ unions, on the other hand, have deep political leverage in many states, and they have shown the ability to stop and even turn back charter-school growth in individual states.
Some of them do so based on the argument that charter schools are not real public schools. But what makes a school “public”? It’s a far fuzzier distinction than many politicians and union leaders would have you think.
Public education is not America’s civic religion, nor is it the rock upon which our democratic institutions were built. It is a work in progress, emerging some 60 years after the Declaration of Independence and only really taking root in the 20th century. In the 100 years since the end of World War I, public education has grown and evolved — adding grades and admitting whole groups of Americans who had previously been denied access. That process continues to this day.
Horace Mann, appointed as Massachusetts’s secretary of education in 1837, is generally credited with defining what we now think of as public education. Mann famously argued that “Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom.” Therefore, he said, education should be “paid for, controlled and maintained by the public,” “provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds,” and “nonsectarian.”
Mann’s first tenet is simple, while the second remains a great challenge. The third represents the emerging front in the evolution of public education. Despite years of effort at integration, many of our nation’s school districts are homogenous, home to students of mostly the same race and socioeconomic status. In the wealthiest school districts (median family income of at least $166,000), public schools serve few black and Hispanic families and only a handful of middle- and low-income families. Seventy percent of families in these districts earn more than $100,000 a year. The same number are white, and only 13 percent are black or Hispanic. The majority (65 percent) of adults possess a bachelor’s degree or higher.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in districts with a median family income below $55,000, the story is starkly different. Most families in these districts earn less than $50,000, close to 56 percent of residents are black or Hispanic, and only about 12 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
No amount of effort in large urban school districts can change this. Those with means will always be able to choose where they send their children to school, whether that means paying tuition directly for a private education or paying high taxes and home prices to live in a district with top-notch schools.
Sadly, it is the families without economic means who are stuck. They can’t afford to access the same “public” schools as their wealthy neighbors a district over, and without options like charters or tuition tax credits, they’re left with no choice but their district school. To paraphrase George Orwell, all public-school educations are equal, but some are more equal than others.
New York’s 732 school districts are a good example of this conundrum. As I found in a recent study for the Manhattan Institute, in areas of New York City where the average family makes at least $150,000, only 46 percent of students attend their local public school, while the rest choose a private option instead. Meanwhile, outside the city, high-income families’ tuition funds are spent instead on homes in areas with high taxes that fund the high-achieving public schools that 85 percent of students in these affluent districts attend.
Arguments against school choice, in all its forms — charter schools, tuition tax credits, vouchers, or public magnet schools — are based on the assertion that these schools are not “public” in the truest sense. But what is truly “public” about affluent suburban school districts, with their restrictive zoning and high price of admission in the form of housing prices and taxes? These districts allow parents to exercise choice, to opt for the type of education they want for their children, and vote to pay taxes in support of these schools.
Charter schools, tuition tax credits, and school vouchers create this kind of option for families who don’t make enough to afford private-school tuition or a home in Scarsdale. They provide freedom to families who could not otherwise afford it. They won’t gain them entry into wealthy suburban enclaves, but they can support and spur the creation of alternatives to neighborhood schools for urban parents who desire them. In other words, they give students in the “less equal” districts a choice, and at least a fighting chance at equality.