Accelerating the merger of public education and publicly-funded education

As publicly-funded private schools have become more integrated into public education, the terms “publicly-funded education” and “public education” are becoming synonymous. I noticed the latest evidence of this semantic merger from Sara Mead earlier this month on her blog, Policy Notebook. Mead wrote that:

… charter schooling and publicly funded pre-kindergarten are both ultimately structural reforms that expand the boundaries of public education and create new spaces and opportunities for educators to serve children. Charter schools do this by allowing organizations other than school districts to operate public schools. Publicly funded pre-k does this by allowing districts and early childhood providers–both existing and new–to receive public funds to serve 4-year-olds.

She’s correct. Publicly-funded providers are expanding the boundaries of public education. Public education today no longer means district schools only, but instead means all publicly-funded education, including charter schools, virtual schools, district schools and private schools receiving pre-K vouchers and tax credit scholarships. One reason I like this semantic and systemic integration is that it move us beyond the trite “private” versus “public” school debates. If all publicly-funded education is public education, then private schools receiving public funds are part of public education. School choice opponents can no longer argue that private schools receiving public funds are draining funds away from public education because these private schools are public education. And teacher unions can provide services to employees in publicly-funded private schools and still maintain their ideological and rhetorical commitment to public education.

Governors and legislatures in states as diverse as New Jersey, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Mexico are discussing legislation to provide families with more publicly-funded learning options via private providers, and many of these proposals will become law in 2011. The merger of public education and publicly-funded education is accelerating.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.