The modern debate over school choicethe right, freedom, and ability of parents to choose for their children the safest and best schoolsfirst emerged as a public policy issue in the United States in the 1950s. It has taken over 40 years, however, for the advocates of greater choice and competition in education to grow into a nationwide movement strong enough to attract the attention of policy-makers at all levels of government.
Only a few years ago, the idea of allowing parents greater freedom to choose their children's schools was considered unnecessary, unrealistic, and even undesirable by some. Today, however, school choice has moved front and center in discussions about how to improve education across the nation. The repeated failure of political reforms to cure the ills of poorly performing government schools has led to widespread frustration among parents, students, teachers, and other education professionals. Citizenswhether black or white, rich or poor, urban or suburban, Democrat or Republicanare now demanding in increasing numbers the freedom to choose more and better alternatives to their local public schools. They are, in short, demanding greater school choice.
Such broad-based public support for fundamental educational reform makes it essential that parents, policy-makers, teachers, and others concerned with the quality of education in United States understand the factsand avoid the mythssurrounding school choice. This three-part primer is designed to educate and inform citizens about all aspects of school choice and equip them to participate in the debate as fully informed members of their communities.
A Note on Terminology
Throughout this text, the terms "government education" and "government schools" are used in place of "public education" and "public schools." The purpose of this word choice is fourfold. First and foremost, the term "public education" has been turned on its head. Early in America's history, what was considered a "public education" for students was achieved at independent, church-related, community-sponsored schools that served large heterogeneous populations. They were in essence what are today called private schools. Beginning in the 1850s, however, public education became synonymous with the direct governmental sponsorship, operation, and control of schooling. Over 100 years later, "public schools" retain the governmental authority to gain funding through taxation as well as students through compulsory attendance laws and the school district assignment system.
The second reason for the use of the word "government" in place of "public" is that "public" does not clearly identify the sources of ownership, funding, and control of a school. Many enterprisesincluding restaurants, hospitals, and sports arenasmay be privately owned, funded, and controlled, but are still considered to be "public" places because they serve the public. In the same way, private schools serve the public that chooses to attend them and are therefore also "public" in that regard.
Third, because government is the only institution legally permitted to use taxation to fund its activities, the "public schools" are the only schools to benefit from such a financial monopoly. In contrast, private schools continually must please their customersstudents and parentsto stay in business. Unlike "public schools," private schools cannot demand that families who do not use their services pay for them anyway. Private schools understand that dissatisfied customers can leave and take their money with them at any time.
Fourth and finally, "public schools" are government units that are bound by both the constitutions of their respective states and of the United States. Private schools may require prayer and certain types of conduct and standards that "public schools" cannot.
For these four reasons, "government schools" and "government education" are a more accurate and descriptive way to distinguish politically governed, tax-funded schools from privately owned schools and forms of education.