Editor’s note: We’ve made the point many times: Public education shouldn’t be synonymous with public schools and increasingly, in this age of rapidly expanding options, it isn’t. In a new essay, James V. Shuls, the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri, expertly riffs on that theme, using the moving story of a student growing up in a tough stretch of St. Louis as a hook. Here’s a taste:
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 diferent 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 efectively than the district-run school, where fewer 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.
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 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.