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July 2013 De La Salle Middle School at St. Matthew’s was opened in 2001 to provide better educational opportunities for students in north Saint Louis.
Redefining Public Education
By James V. Shuls, PhD
ADVANCING LIBERTY WITH RESPONSIBILITY BY PROMOTING MARKET SOLUTIONS FOR MISSOURI PUBLIC POLICY
Every one of us has had defining moments that altered the course of our lives. One of those lifechanging moments occurred for Korey Stewart-Glaze when he entered middle school. The school was new and held class above a barbeque joint called Big Mo’s. Yet, from these inauspicious conditions, he began a journey that would dramatically change his pathway in life. Korey’s story teaches a valuable lesson; that public education is not about the type of school a student attends. Rather, it is the goal that every child should have access to a quality education.
Korey grew up near one of north Saint Louis’ historically black neighborhoods, The Ville. The neighborhood has a rich history. The first African American high school west of the Mississippi opened here in 1875. In 1902, Annie Malone moved to The Ville and later became one of the nation’s first African American millionaires. Other famous former residents of The Ville include tennis great Arthur Ashe and famed musician Chuck Berry. Today, however, The Ville is just a shadow of its former self. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair. The majority of the white and black middle class families have moved elsewhere.
SHOW-ME INSTITUTE I ESSAY Population in the area has been in steady decline, down nearly 31 percent from 2000 to 2010. The median household income in The Ville is less than half of the median household in Missouri, at slightly more than $20,000.1 Nearly 40 percent of all residential property is vacant. Single mothers head a staggering 44 percent of all households.2 The Greater Ville, where Korey lived, is among one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of Saint Louis. In 2012, The Greater Ville ranked eighth out of more than 80 Saint Louis neighborhoods for the number of armed robberies, tied for second for the number of rapes, and tied for first for total aggravated assaults.3 Korey attended public schools in this neighborhood from kindergarten through fifth grade. The normal path would have taken him to a district-run school for middle and high school. For the past decade, the public high school that serves his neighborhood has been a dropout factory. In 2012, just 44 percent of all students graduated on time.4 That figure is even lower for male students. As a child, Korey attended St. Matthew Catholic Church. In 2001, St. Matthew’s parish opened De La Salle Middle School. The small private school above Big Mo’s barbeque restaurant only had 20 students. Korey did not know what to think about the idea of attending De La Salle. In time, he would come to realize that this decision changed his life. With expected pride, he says, “De La Salle put me on a path to greatness.” This school was different from other schools he had attended. Class sizes were small, with more one-on-one attention. His teachers were passionate, not just about academics, but also about character. One in particular, Martha Altvater, pushed him harder than he had ever been pushed. From De La Salle, he earned a scholarship to Christian Brothers College (CBC) High School, a respected private school in Saint Louis County, and then attended Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. In 2012, he graduated with a degree in business administration; sitting in the audience was none other than Martha Altvater. At a critical moment in his life, Korey had the opportunity to attend either a public school or a private school. He chose to attend the private school. In doing so, he chose the option that best served the public, as well as him. Had he chosen the neighborhood public school, Korey says he “might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and be in jail or dead today.” That has been the fate for many of his friends who attended the public high school. But Korey’s fate was different because he found a school that recognized and developed his potential. Though it is a private school, De La Salle Middle School serves the public much more effectively than the district-run school, where fewer
The normal path would have taken (Korey StewartGlaze) to a districtrun school for middle and high school. For the past decade, the public high school that serves his neighborhood has been a dropout factory.
than half of the students graduate. However, instead of celebrating De La Salle as a venerable public institution, we label it as a private school and deem it unworthy of public funds.
definition abound in our own system of education in Missouri.
Take, for instance, magnet schools, which are common in Kansas City and Saint Louis. Traditional school Our communities are full of thousands districts operate magnet schools, of Koreys trapped in failing schools but these schools typically have a set and higher-performing public schools curricular theme or target a specific do not have the capacity to serve all type of student. Some magnet schools of them. What do we do with the have strict admissions criteria, rest of the Koreys? Condemn them including test scores or performances. to lives of underachievement? That Some magnet schools even have should not be an option. We need to racial targets, meaning students of a allow those students to attend schools particular race might have preference that will recognize and foster their in the admissions process. Of course, development, as De La Salle did for these criteria restrict access for many Korey. We do that by understanding students. Though not all students in that public education is an idea and a district have access to these schools, that giving families options, including magnet schools are still public access to private schools, can serve schools. Thus, being open to all the public and meet the needs of students in a geographic area does not individual students like Korey. define a public school.
COMMON DEFINITION OF PUBLIC EDUCATION
At a critical moment in his life, Korey had the opportunity to attend either a public school or a private school. He chose to attend the private school. In doing so, he chose the option that best served the public, as well as him.
Most people have come to understand a very clear meaning of public education. They think of it as a system of education whereby students are assigned to schools based on where they live. They think of these schools as serving all students in their residential attendance zone. In the common definition, democratically elected boards govern public schools. This specific system, however, is not public education. It is just one method of delivering public education. In fact, exceptions to this
There are other examples of public schools that do not fit within the traditional definition of public education. For example, the Special School District of Saint Louis County serves students with special needs who are residents of Saint Louis County. Though the school is a public school, supported by public dollars, the people do not elect its school board. Similarly, a Special Advisory Board (SAB), which is not elected, currently governs the Saint Louis Public School District. When the SAB replaced the elected board of the district, the district did not cease to be a public school district. In both of these instances, we see public
SHOW-ME INSTITUTE I ESSAY schools without elected school boards, again defying the traditional definition. Charter schools are another example of public schools that do not fit the traditional mold. Like the schools mentioned previously, charter schools do not typically serve students within a particular attendance boundary, nor do they have an elected board. In Missouri, colleges and universities sponsor charter schools, but they are privately run. A group of concerned citizens or charter management organizations that operate many schools can start a charter school. Moreover, the management organizations can be for-profit. Nevertheless, charter schools are public schools. All of these examples demonstrate that our common definition of public education does not describe the reality of public schools. It does not fit because the conventional notion describes one method of delivering education to the public. It also leaves out the real goal of public education, which is to turn out more students like Korey Stewart-Glaze.
REDEFINING PUBLIC EDUCATION
from 1955, “The Role of Government in Education”— that government funding of education does not necessitate government provision of education. He wrote: Government has appropriately financed general education for citizenship, but in the process it has been led also to administer most of the schools that provide such education. Yet, . . .the administration of schools is neither required by the financing of education, nor justifiable in its own right in a predominantly free enterprise society. The point Friedman made almost 60 years ago is the same point that many in the education reform field are making today — public education is nothing more or less than the idea that all children should have access to a quality education. Writing in a 2000 City Journal piece, then-Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham-Keegan wrote, “If we want to save the public schools, we mustn’t confuse the ideal of public education — that every child has the right to a good K-12 education at public expense — with any particular system, including the one we’ve got.” Echoing this statement, Paul Hill, of the Brookings Institution, wrote: Public education is a goal, ensuring that every American knows enough, and has all the required skills, to take a full part in our
Though it is a private school, De La Salle Middle School serves the public much more effectively than the districtrun school, where fewer than half of the students graduate.
As we have seen, limiting public education to one, narrow definition ignores the variety of ways we operate schools today. More and more, we are realizing what economist Milton Friedman noted in his classic piece
country’s social, economic, and political life. Public education is not a fixed institution but a standard against which institutions are measured. Thus, a school does not accomplish the goal of public education just because it is provided by government.5 He went on to say, “Schooling institutions that educate children effectively and prepare them for full participation in a democratic society, have great value. Institutions that do not fulfill that purpose have little or no value.” District-run schools that fail to prepare students for life do little to serve the public. On the other hand, private schools such as De La Salle Middle School do serve the public good. They impart knowledge and skills to students, and equip those students for democratic life. It is time for Missourians to move past our narrow definition of public education. It is time we accept the reality that students can, and do, receive a quality public education from schools that are not publicly operated. This realization is taking root in states throughout the country. Vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts are making it possible.6 By 2013, 16 states had created one of these publicly funded programs to give students access to private schools.7 Some attack private school choice programs and label them as an affront
to public education. However, when we correctly view public education as an idea, we see they are nothing of the sort. Rather, school choice programs facilitate public education because they give all families the freedom to choose. If we value public education, that is, if we believe that all students should have access to high-quality schools, then as a society, we should support school choice.
District-run schools that fail to prepare students for life do little to serve the public. On the other hand, private schools such as De La Salle Middle School do serve the public good.
This essay should not be construed to say that all private schools are great — they are not. Nor should readers think that I am saying that all public schools are bad — they are not. The point is that all types of schools — district, charter, and private — can effectively serve the public. Right now, however, we have put up an artificial barrier that prevents students from using public dollars to attend the private school of their choice. Never mind that these private schools can, as was the case for Korey Stewart-Glaze, serve the student and the public very well. Korey Stewart-Glaze’s journey has come full circle. He now recruits students to attend the school that changed his life, De La Salle Middle School. Still, funding makes this a somewhat difficult task. Though the school provides privately funded scholarships to 100 percent of its students, they still have to pay some tuition. This severely limits the number of students the school can serve and creates a barrier for many families who simply cannot bear the
SHOW-ME INSTITUTE I ESSAY cost. Our narrow definition of public education prevents De La Salle from receiving state dollars and prevents more students from experiencing the life-changing moment that Korey had. It is time we redefine public education. It should no longer mean assigning students to a specific type of school, regardless of quality, but rather that we provide access to a quality education, regardless of the type of school delivering that education.
If we value public education, that is, if we believe that all students should have access to highquality schools, then as a society, we should support school choice.
James V. Shuls, PhD, is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. The author would like to thank Show-Me Institute Intern Allison Davis for research assistance.
Data retrieved from City-Data. View online here: http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/The-Ville-Saint-Louis-MO.html.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police. (2012). “Crime Summary By Neighborhood. ” View online here: http://www.slmpd.org/crimestats/ CRM0005-C_20130123.pdf.
Data were obtained from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education School Report Card.
Hill, Paul. (2000). “What is public about public education?” The Brookings Institution, working paper. View online here: http://www. brookings.edu/gs/brown/PublicEd.PDF .
For more on vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, see Shuls, James V. (2013). “Public Dollars, Private Schools: Examining the Options in Missouri. ” The Show-Me Institute. View online here: http://www.showmeinstitute.org/publications/essay/education.html.
It is time we redefine public education. It should no longer mean assigning students to a specific type of school, regardless of quality, but rather that we provide access to a quality education, regardless of the type of school delivering that education.
Glenn, Malcom, and Randan Swindler. (2013). “School Choice Now: The Power of Educational Choice. ” Alliance for School Choice. View online here: http://s3.amazonaws.com/ assets.allianceforschoolchoice.com/admin_ assets/uploads/167/School%20Choice%20 Yearbook%202012-13.pdf.
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