The Magazine

A World Without Public Schools

If the consensus underlying American public education has disappeared, why shouldn't the institution?

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Should America have public schools, or would we do better without them? Nothing is more important to this country than the transformation of children into educated American citizens. That's what public schools are for, and no institutions are better suited to the role--in principle. They used to fill it with distinction.

But there's no reason we must have public schools. Granted, the public has a strong interest in educating America's children, at a cost that's divided equitably among all taxpayers and not borne by the parents of school-age children alone. But these requirements don't imply any need for public schools. We need an Air Force, and the Air Force needs planes. Taxpayers pay for the force and the planes. But the pilots are supplied directly by the government, the airplanes by private companies (with government oversight and assistance). Schooling might be furnished on either model: mainly by public or mainly by private organizations. We know that private schools are perfectly capable of supplying first-class educations. So the question stands: Why have public schools? How should we decide whether to have them or not?

Vouchers have been a popular and promising (and controversial) idea for years. Under voucher plans, the public pays part or all of the bill when a child attends private school. But here I am talking about the whole hog, not just the tail and a couple of trotters. If sending some children to private school at public expense is worth discussing, why not sending all children to private school?

Why not liberate all the vast resources we spend on public schools to be re-channeled to private schools chosen by the nation's parents? Any public school offering an education that parents will actually pay for (of their own free will) would presumably be replaced by a private school offering essentially the same thing. But a vast array of new private schools would germinate also. And a vast number of failed public schools would disappear.

In the system I am picturing, education would continue to be free and accessible to every child, and all taxpayers would continue to pay for it. Parents would be guaranteed access to "reasonable" schools that cost them nothing beyond what they pay in taxes. It would all be just like today--except that public schools would have vanished.

Would private organizations be capable of providing enough new schools to replace our gigantic public schools establishment? Private enterprise is alleged to be smarter and more resourceful in America than anywhere else in the world. So let's suppose that private schools can indeed meet the needs of nearly all parents. Do we actually need and want our public schools, or do we keep them around out of fear of the teachers' unions--and habit, like a broken child's toy we are too sentimental to throw away?

The basic law of public schools

Many sources agree that, on the whole, American public schools are rotten. In 2000, a whopping 12 percent of graduating seniors were rated "proficient" in science, and international surveys rank our graduating seniors 19th overall out of 21 nations. In 2002, the Washington Post summarized a different survey: "Nearly six in 10 of the nation's high school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of U.S. history." And so on. Our public schools are widely agreed to be in bad shape. But these are only problems of incompetence. Others cut deeper.

The basic law of public schools is this: Public schools are first and foremost agents of the public. They exist to transform children into "educated citizens" as the public understands this term--in other words, as a public consensus defines it. Of course the United States is a large country; standards have always differed from state to state. So each state has its own public schools, charged with satisfying the consensus definition of "educated citizen" in that state.

In 1898, Nicholas Murray Butler (soon to be president of Columbia University) described universities in terms that make explicit this connection, one that is almost forgotten today. "In order to become great--indeed, in order to exist at all," he wrote,

a university [or public school!] must represent the national life and minister to it. When the universities of any country cease to be in close touch with the social life and institutions of the people, and fail to yield to the efforts of those who would readjust them, their days of influence are numbered. The same is true of any system of educational organization.

Public schools even more than universities must "represent the national life and minister to it." They must "minister to" the consensus definition of an educated citizen. And what is a "consensus"? "Unanimity or general agreement on matters of opinion," according to Webster's; solid agreement by a large majority.