Public Education Versus the Public’s Education


Watching children running around the athletic field in a town sports league, you can’t tell the public school kids from the private school kids.  At school bus stops, in the morning, the only clue about which are which may be that one group wears uniforms (which aren’t always much more definitive than “business casual” attire).

That’s the thought that came to mind when reading the quotes that Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg collected in opposition to the school choice legislation that Rep. Elaine Coderre (D, Pawtucket) submitted last week:

“We don’t want taxpayer money to pay tuition at private and parochial schools,” said Robert Walsh, executive director  of the National Education Association, Rhode Island. “It’s bad public policy because public dollars should go to public schools.”

“This is a blank check,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There is no limit to the amount of tax money that could be used to send children to private or parochial schools. This would further erode the money available for public education.”

Put aside the question of why the ACLU is commenting on school choice legislation at all (much less, doing so in opposition to increased liberty).  And take into account that the National Education Association, Rhode Island, has a clear and obvious financial interest in restricting Rhode Islanders to government-run schools as much as possible.

We, in the public, need to start giving some consideration to what is meant by “public dollars” and “public education.”

Simply put, Rhode Island is not its government.  It is a society of families who live within the geographical and cultural boundaries that define the Ocean State and that define Rhode Islanders.  Our economy is not just the money that filters through state and local government.  Our children are not just the children who attend schools that are directly under the control of the state Department of Education.

Our education system is the total strategy by which our local society educates itself.  The children of Rhode Island enter school when they are young, and they walk off the graduation stage as Rhode Islanders whether they count in the statistics for the government schools, the diocese schools, the Jewish schools, the Montessori schools, or any other schools.

The irony is that, when Bob Walsh talks about “public dollars,” he means money that the government takes from the public by force of law to be spent in ways that the government thinks best. When it comes time to debate how “public dollars” should be spent, we find that it’s almost all untouchable — wrapped up in long-term contracts, mandated by state and federal laws, and generally subject to obscure accounting gimmicks.

When Steven Brown talks about “public education,” he means schools operated by people within government, with control increasingly moving to bureaucrats who aren’t even Rhode Islanders. He doesn’t mean schools operated by members of the Rhode Island public.

Nobody is better situated than a child’s parents to determine what school and what sort of education would best suit his or her needs.  If we think of Rhode Island education in terms of how we ensure that Rhode Islanders are educated, then it’s only a matter of justice, fairness, and pragmatic efficiency that parents should have access to schools whether or not they are operated by the local teachers union, the state education commissioner, or a federal government bureaucrat.

  • Mike678

    Wrong. Educated people are not malleable–critical thought is an anathema to a Party that thrives in a brainwashed and uninformed population. For these reasons, school choice must not go forward. Indoctrination and mediocrity can only be assured in our state controlled public schools.

  • Todd Borgerding

    But what it always comes back to, Justin, is this: if my tax dollars are paying to educate RI children, then I should have a say, however indirect, in how they are educated. I can do this by voting for the people that appoint education commissioners, or the people that sit on school boards. If my tax dollars are going to a RC school, I have no such say. None. How is that fair?

    • I agree with this. I also do have an issue with using tax dollars to send children to private religious schools. I don't think tax dollars should be used to help educate children on their religious beliefs. That is something that should be done outside of school. If you want your child to go to a private school for whatever reason, then it should be paid for by the parents.

      • justinkatz

        What if the legislation required parents (or some other source) to pay at least the amount of tuition that is attributable to religious instruction?

        • I still don't think I would agree with it. So now we have to give parents who choose not to use the public education system money to educate their children privately. What comes next? People who don' t have school age shouldn't have to have their share of tax dollars that goes to the school? What happens once all these tax dollars are deducted from public education? Where does that leave our schools?

          • justinkatz

            A. So why did you lead with a statement that "tax dollars" should not go "to educate children on their religious beliefs" if that's not your main concern?
            B. You went even farther, saying "that is something that should be done outside of school." At core, you're making a religious statement, there. Why should your belief that God isn't integral to education get government backing while somebody else's belief that you simply can't teach children about the world without teaching them about God is entirely banned? That's an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
            C. The point of my post was that this idea of a "public education system" has to be revisited. I'm a member of the public. All of the people involved in private schools are members of the public. The education system of Rhode Island has to include all of the ways that Rhode Islanders ensure that their children are educated. The only real distinction between "public" schools and "private" schools, at this point, is that a lot of families are blocked from utilizing the schools that they would rather use because the government uses its monopoly power to trap them in "public" schools.
            D. The "what comes next" question skips an important point: Most of us agree (or say we do) that the society is better off with an educated citizenry. Most of us will also acknowledge that many families would have difficulty covering the costs of that goal without help. So, we conclude that our society should use the taxation powers of government to force shared investment in education. Concluding that parents are best able to judge what schools best serve their children does not lead to the conclusion that we shouldn't all contribute to the overall objective of educating them.

          • I don't think I mentioned having "main" concern. It is a concern. Children can go to church, Sunday School, or whatever is available to them to learn about their religion. Tax dollars shouldn't be paying for it. Please explain why you think it's an unconstitutional establishment of religion. I also don't entirely agree with your statement that parents are the best judge of their children's education. I'm sure we can both agree that not all parents are capable of making that decision. Many parents themselves just don't care or don't understand.

          • justinkatz

            "Please explain why you think it's an unconstitutional establishment of religion."
            At least a large percentage of religious believers think that God is the central fact of reality. We're well past the point that anybody even pretends that the mission of government schools is to educate students on a limited number important topics (like civics, reading, and math). If the claim is to be providing a "well rounded" or "comprehensive" education for young Americans, then the explicit decision to leave God out of it requires the religious belief that God is not (or should not be) inherently in it. That's unavoidably a statement about the nature of God, and enforcing that statement through government schools establishes it as a state-endorsed religious belief.

            "I'm sure we can both agree that not all parents are capable of making that decision."
            Well, sure. But perhaps we can both agree that the school committee, state legislature, and federal government cannot make a single decision that applies universally to all students. I think it is more true that parents are best suited to make decisions for their own children than that government officials are best positioned to make decisions for all children.

            And you can't really make your statement about parents without acknowledging that the government has put them in a position not to care or not to have to understand. If more parents had the opportunity to make substantive decisions about their children's education, more would. I'd wager that more would be actively involved in their children's educations if the kids were in schools because their parents put them there.

            Otherwise, I'd ask you where we should stop. Not letting parents make dietary decisions? Entertainment? Sports? Whether they should even be allowed to have children in the first place?

    • justinkatz

      [Oops. Having comment management glitches. This was meant as a reply to Todd Borgerding. It is the comment that's noted elsewhere as "deleted."]

      There are a number of ways to answer that question, but I guess a sort of preliminary series of questions has to be answered:

      Do you really think you have some say over how the tax dollars are spent on education? Are the many ways in which government schools insulate themselves from voters and taxpayers less important than the fact that the government education infrastructure is presumably non-religious? (Looking at the worldviews pushed through public school curricula, I have to kind of chuckle when I write that.)

      To the extent that any given taxpayer's money is actually funding any particular student or school, you are getting the value of being able to require certain standards and certifications. As things currently exist, you're essentially claiming the right to use the monopoly power of the government to force your fellow Americans to go to non-religious, often irreligious schools. Is that an outcome you prefer to freedom and parental choice? Even at the expense of freedom, efficiency, and practical economics?

  • But they're not being forced. You have an option. You can send your child to public school and practice your religious beliefs outside of school.

    • justinkatz

      You're changing what I wrote. They are being forced "to go to non-religious, often irreligious schools." As explained above, in another reply to you, it is ultimately a religious belief to say that religion is something that should be taught outside of school.

      It's just like if there were classes teaching Christian prayer in government schools that students didn't necessarily have to take: the statement would be that God has a rightful place in a well-rounded education, with exemptions for religious freedom. You're saying that God has no place in a well-rounded education, with permission for parents to take extra steps to ensure religious classes.

  • You're saying that God has no place in a well-rounded education, with permission for parents to take extra steps to ensure religious classes

    That's exactly what I'm saying. If we have to teach about god in schools, do we then also have to offer the teachings of Buddah?

    If the school did not offer an activity that my child wanted, I would find a way for her to participate outside of school. I just think the same should be done with religion. Yes….I compared it to an extra curricular activity. It's just not a topic we'll ever agree on I guess.

    • justinkatz

      I want to be clear, here: I'm not saying that "we have to teach about God in schools." I'm saying that the decision not to do so is a religious decision,as much as the decision to do so.

      From their perspective, religious people are therefore paying with their tax dollars for government-school education that offers an inherently biased view of reality. That isn't objectionable if what the tax dollars are ultimately paying for is simply the principle of an educated public, with parents' having the choice about where they should send their own children.

      That doesn't establish religion (per the Bill of Rights), but ends its establishment.

  • Mike

    You are wasting your time, Justin. The goal for RCwiek is to eliminate competition and ensure the survival of the status quo in RI "education". Any excuse, no matter how weak, will do.

    Perhaps we should advocate for the Finnish school model in RI…after all, they are tops in education. They hire the top 10% of their college graduates to educate their children…the top in chemistry, biology, etc… Lets involuntarily retire the current teachers who do not meet that qualification and start promoting excellence in RI education. Then perhaps we will have educators that will embrace education and competition, rather than fear it.

  • Sorry Mike. I have no goal. I'm just a stay at home mom that follows Justin and had some questions and was interested in having a discussion about the topic. I have no way to eliminate any competition. i do not have that kind of power. Have a lovely day.

  • Robert Benson

    The problem i have with this discussion is this: the public schools are funded by all taxpayers through local property taxes. As a result parents who opt for private or religious schools must pay tuition and other non-public school expenses in addition to paying property taxes that support public schools. Essentially, under our current system of taxation, the non-public school parents are paying twice for education of their children. Is that fair?

    Another thing that really bothers me is this–it seems like non-public schools are operated more efficiently than public schools or perhaps i should say schools without teacher unions. We have "pubic schools" where teacher contracts dictate how the public schools are operated. Teacher contracts have one primary objective–ensure that the teachers are well compensated for their work independent of whether the students are being properly educated. In public schools the management of the schools is determined in large part by the teacher contract. Certainly the cost of operating these public schools is impacted by the teacher contracts. What a superintendent or a principal principal can and can not do in a public school is dictated by the teacher contract. Even student discipline is impacted by the teacher contract and the dictates of the state board of education.

    I think there should be as many choices as possible for parents when they decide where to have their children educated, and that if they decide to send their children to non-public schools, then they should not be required to have to support public schools via the town's property taxes. In other words the cost of sending their children to non-public schools should offset what they are now obligated to pay in property taxes. Maybe a voucher system is the best way to fund education.

  • Okay…but how do you work that out? I have three children in the public school system. I'm going to expect the tax payers to use their tax money to pay for all of my children to go to private schools? I just think there are so many little issues tied into it. My inlaws have no children in the public schools system, yet still pay for the kids to go to school. They have six grandchildren in public schools. What if they don't want their tax dollars to pay for other kids to go to private school? Do we now give every tax payer the choice of where their portion of tax dollars funds?

    • What about those taxpayers who don't want any of their money going to government schools for one reason or another? (We've all heard the insults about being "anti-education.") Just because people with one interest or another in government schools are able to force their neighbors to pay for them doesn't mean that government schools are any more universally acceptable.

      There's a point that seems at risk of getting lost in your response: under no circumstances will taxpayers be paying more for private schools. Similarly, why should private-school families have to pay for education twice?

      As I said above, the tax dollars are going to the shared interest of ensuring that children are educated. Individual taxpayers don't get to pick and choose which company is hired to pave their roads, and there's no reason there should be a conflict if they don't get to pick which schools the children attend.

  • Mike678

    What is people want their children to get a good education and can't afford to send their children to a private school? Are these people then doomed to an average or below average education for their children when the state could have offered them choice but chose not to based in union/competition concerns? Why can't we be Pro-choice?

    All need to pay for education–it's the public good and it's educations job to produce good citizens. Given that we all have to pay, why can't I then choose to which school my child attends as long as it meets–or exceeds educational outcomes? What gives anyone the right to say no–your kid can't go to a religious school because I don't like that idea? Freedom is a beautiful thing–for everyone, not just those than can afford it.

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