— “We are a public school, not a private school.”

At a recent school board meeting Asheville Middle School parents and students expressed concern about school safety. The principal gave this explanation for their concerns:

We are a public school, not a private school, and I think there are some people who are looking for a private school experience in a public school.  (AC-T, 5/13/2012)

That is true. Many parents want their child’s public school to be like a private one. That is the idea behind charter schools. Legislation exempts charters from oppressive state and district regulations, hoping they will be more like private schools.

If oppressive regulations were the main difference between public and private education, all public schools could be exempted and be just like privates.  The differences between them, however, are more fundamental. The differences are in each system’s (1) core belief, (2) governance structure, (3) purposes, (4) organizational structure, and (5) improvement paradigm.

These five elements are a framework for all education systems. For American public education, it looks like this: (1) Our core belief is that public schools should be politically governed. (2) Education “governors” should be democratically elected. (3) Purposes should be identified by those who are elected. (4) Districts and schools should be bureaucratically structured. (5) Schools should be improved through the application of research findings.

For home schooling and private schools it looks like this:

(1) The core belief is that their home or private school can educate their children better than the local public one. If they did not believe this, they would send their children to the nearby public school, which is  funded by their taxes.

The order of the second and third elements is reversed for private education. In public schools, governance precedes purpose because Americans revere democracy. In private schools, however, purpose precedes governance because purpose is sacred, governance is not.  What are the differences between private and public school purposes?

(2) Private schools pursue a range of inspiring missions. For example, parochial schools are based on religious teachings; some academies are based on military style discipline; Montessori and Waldorf schools are based on theories of human development; and outdoor schools teach adventure/survival principles and skills.  Whatever their missions, they must be inspiring, or families will not enroll their children.

On the other hand, public schools don’t have an inspiring mission.  To accommodate the standards and accountability movement, they are now completely focused on achieving higher standardized test sores.  A more uninspiring mission is hard to find.

(3) Private school trustees (governors) are the keepers of the private school mission.  They make sure a school stays true to its mission and incorporates new purposes as they emerge.

(4) Private schools organize themselves as communities of like-minded parents, teachers and students. If private school families wanted their children to be educated in a bureaucracy, they would send them to the nearby public school. The question confronting private schools is the extent to which their community is inclusive or exclusive. Funding is often the determining factor.  Private schools with sliding tuition scales and endowments for tuition assistance are more inclusive than schools without these policies. But all privates fall short of being as inclusive as public schools.

(5) According to educational researchers and politicians, public schools improve when teachers and principals apply research findings about what is effective. That is why federal funds support only research-based improvement efforts. And that is why states require that teachers renew certifications by attending training sessions on research-based fads. On the other hand, private schools pay attention only to research that is pertinent to their specific mission. For example, Montessori and Waldorf schools pay attention to child and adolescent development research because that is the basis for everything in their schools. Another example is “Sunday schools” or parochial schools.  They don’t care about “research-based” because improvement is not about higher test scores, but about more effective indoctrination into the faith.

This five-element framework explains the meaning of, “We are a public school, not a private school.” Several article commenters also took notice of that statement.

Public schools could be like private ones; but fundamental changes would be needed.  The first change is simple though — exchange our uninspiring definition of the educated person with an inspiring one.  Instead of arguing over which knowledge and skills are the mark of the “educated” person, understand that knowledge and skill emerge from the six virtues.  Try developing knowledge and skills without bringing the virtues to the situation. You can’t do it.

Everything depends on your definition of “educated.”  What is your definition? Is it inspiring? Is it useful?


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