What Qualifies as Public Education, Anyway?

Frederick M. Hess
4 min readSep 7, 2023

When you’ve been around as long as I have, one gets all manner of intriguing questions. While I usually respond to such queries in private, some seem likely to be of broader interest. So, in “Ask Rick,” I occasionally take up reader queries. If you’d like to send one along, just send it to me, care of Caitlyn Aversman, at caitlyn.aversman@aei.org.

Dear Rick,

I enjoy reading you and think you make some useful points, even if I disagree with some of your conclusions. But I recently heard you on a podcast and was a left a little confused. For one thing, I realized you talk really fast. More seriously, you dismissed people who attack public education but then you went on to defend right-wing laws to let parents see instructional materials, alternative teacher licensure, and school choice. Given that these things are all attacks on public education, it sounded pretty inconsistent. I’m wondering how you square the circle.

Sincerely,

Puzzled

Thanks for your thoughtful note. You’re hardly the first person to walk away confused from a podcast interview of mine. And I know I talk too fast. (I can only imagine how I sound if a podcast is played at a faster speed.) So, thanks for the chance to elaborate.

Let’s see. The basic point is that I don’t accept your premise that these measures are attacks on public education. I generally see public education as far more capacious than those who take issue with these types of proposals. In other words, I believe I can critique what I see as unduly narrow or self-interested versions of public education while remaining a principled supporter of public education.

I honor and embrace public education, just like so many other parents and public school teachers. Public schools are often beloved community institutions for a reason.

But supporting public education doesn’t necessarily mean liking everything about it. Heck, there are any number of outspoken defenders of public education who will eagerly criticize public schools for being inequitable, underfunded, segregated, and so forth.

The way I see it, public education can encompass a lot of approaches and can be organized in many different ways.

Keep in mind that, today, state departments of education and local school districts routinely contract with for-profit firms for books, buses, lunches, payroll systems, data management, technology, and testing — and they pay to place some hard-to-serve students in private settings. These things are less clear-cut than defenders of the status quo are prone to acknowledge. I don’t often hear proponents of public schools decrying these arrangements.

So, let’s take the three examples you offer above.

You mention “parent transparency” laws which require schools to make instructional materials available to the public. Well, we can argue whether these constitute good or bad policy or deserve to be labeled “right wing.” (I think they’re sensible so long as they’re done in ways that don’t burden teachers.) But it seems pretty clear to me that giving parents and the public more visibility into what students are learning is wholly consistent with the ethos of public education. This is a matter of allowing elected officials to make democratic decisions about how transparent systems should be, just as legislators require police to wear body cameras or physicians to provide patients access to their medical records.

When it comes to licensure, I’ve long been a proponent of making it easier for schools to hire educators based on expertise, knowledge, temperament, and instructional acumen — rather than paper credentials. For two decades, I’ve been told that pushing to reduce licensure barriers is an assault on public education. I’ll admit that, even after all this time, I still don’t quite understand the argument. There’s no reason to imagine that more regulation and credentialing of staff make schools more public. In fact, in recent years, a bipartisan slate of governors have changed state hiring rules so that most state jobs no longer require applicants to have college degrees. I don’t know of anyone who has suggested that this makes these jobs less public. The decision to require certain hiring criteria or credentials for employment is a prudential one. We can argue about whether teacher licensure ensures teachers are qualified or repels promising educators. But, as I see it, this is a debate about the merits of policy, not the publicness of the enterprise.

As for school choice, I’ve long thought that assertions of choice being anti-public education is a product of us focusing too much on labels and too little on what those labels mean. Should public schools be allowed to select their students? If not, then charter schools and schools in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship (voucher) program are more “public” than selective magnet schools. Should public schools be allowed to charge fees? If not, then many district schools fail to meet the bar. When states adopt charter schools, education savings accounts, or voucher programs, they’re democratically deciding to fund those services with public tax dollars — and in accord with rules sketched by the legislature and the courts. Again, we can debate whether the resulting arrangements are good or bad for students and communities, but publicly funded schools serving a public mission in accord with legislative directive strike me as pretty consistent with the tenets of public education.

Here’s my general take on all this in The Great School Rethink: “In an age when social and technological change have created extraordinary new possibilities and challenges, pinched renderings of ‘public schooling’ are untenable and counterproductive . . . A more expansive conception is truer to our traditions and better suited to the challenges ahead.”

That may not satisfy you, Puzzled, but hopefully it provides a better sense of how I try to square that circle.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.