All Schools Are Public Schools


Training good citizens is the public purpose all schools serve, whether we call them public or private. Our goal in this paper is to question the premise that only publicly run schools serve the public good and therefore are entitled to public money. At various times in world and American history, private schools have not only served the public good but have also received public money. And nobody thought this was unusual.

— All Schools Are Public Schools —
Forward and Chapter One: How We Got "Public" Schools


Foreword by Robert Royal
Chapter One: How We Got "Public" Schools
Chapter Two: Private Schools, Public Good
Chapter Three: Funding All Schools


Every year, roughly six million children, about 10 percent of K-12 students, attend private schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, another 1.7 million were being home schooled, reflecting a steady 10 to 15 percent annual growth in that movement since 1985. In 1999, the Children's Scholarship Fund had to turn away an additional 1.2 million applicants for the 42,000 partial scholarships it can currently provide. As these figures demonstrate, the parents of nearly one in six American children have decided that their needs cannot be met in our current system of public education, despite the sacrifices they have to make if they choose an alternative — and their numbers continue to grow.

What has been the response to this massive vote of no-confidence? Politicians, school administrators, and teachers' unions have decided to batten down the hatches instead of facing reality. They claim that any attempt to make the plight of these parents easier is an attack on public schools. In their view, all public financing of education must be earmarked for government-run schools — whatever the track record of those institutions and the judgments of parents intimately involved with them. That millions of children are thereby condemned to poor instruction and, in all likelihood, diminished life prospects does not seem to trouble these self-styled champions of public education.

Jason Boffetti, a talented young scholar, offers a different vision in these pages. He urges us to realize a simple fact: all schools are public schools, because any institution that provides a good education and necessary social skills to its students performs a public function that should be supported with public monies. Unlike those on the other side, Boffetti sees a role for various approaches to education. Some public schools are good, and others can be reformed, he says. But public goods do not come only from institutions that are government-run. We need to take a much more flexible and imaginative approach to educating children. We did so in the past in America, as he shows, before our attitudes about schooling narrowed to produce the current crisis. And we could do so again if the public, education lobbies, politicians, and the courts recognize the public office that "private" methods of schooling fulfill.

Indeed, not only do alternatives to public schools provide equivalent training, they exceed their public counterparts, even in some of the worst circumstances America has to offer at the start of the twenty-first century. Boffetti uses Catholic schools in the inner city as a crucial case study. Those schools draw mostly poor and minority students from the very urban environments most worrisome to anyone who considers education today. Yet by an integrated emphasis on study, good conduct, and shared values, these schools are able to counteract the pernicious influence of chaotic neighborhoods and teach children skills far beyond the level of their peers in public schools.

Home schooling — once thought a marginal and mildly eccentric enterprise — has demonstrated similar power. The three top finishers in the 2000 National Spelling Bee were home schooled, as were 11 percent of the contestants. The winner of that contest had placed second the week before in the National Geography Bee. And he was not an exception. Students taught at home do significantly better on the ACT assessment test than the national average. And these results have come despite attitudes towards home schooling that range from derision to outright hostility, and attempts to curtail it by law.

Boffetti encourages us to weigh all types of educational reform fairly. Instead of opposing alternatives that can make a difference in the lives of young children who cannot wait a decade or two for public schools to improve, he argues, we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to tackle this difficult problem. Though it may appear at first that alternative education is trying to divert resources from public schools, in fact, competition among religious, secular, and government-run schools will benefit all students in the long run. Indeed, Boffetti warns that if government funding leads to interference in the religious or social mission of private schools, those schools should reject it as threatening the distinctive features that made them successful. This sophisticated and comprehensive essay appears at exactly the right time as the incoming Bush administration begins its efforts at persuading Congress and the public to embrace education reform.

Training good citizens is the public purpose all schools serve, whether we call them public or private. We have been mired for too long in a sterile debate about which schools will benefit from reform proposals. Boffetti recasts the debate so that it focuses on its proper goal: children. If we truly want the best for them, and ultimately for our nation, we will help parents choose the best education currently available from whatever source.


A not so radical proposal

With so many parents looking for alternatives to public schools, do we need to discard public education entirely? Of course not. Our goal is not to undermine faith in public schools but to question the premise that only publicly run schools serve the public good and therefore are entitled to public money. Instead, I offer a simple proposal: Let us treat all schools like public schools, for all good schools perform a public service.

At various times in world and American history, private schools have not only served the public good but have also received public money. And nobody thought this was unusual. In fact, for most of world history, parents believed educating their children was their private responsibility, and they received little or no public assistance. No one wants to return to such a system; tax-supported universal education has obvious advantages. But perhaps the time has come for parents to be more directly involved with education choice.

Rather than the usual hostility to alternatives, we need an approach that allows all parents to choose schools that best serve their needs. Such a system strikes many as a radical change. But it is not so radical as one might suppose. For example, everyone recognizes the yellow school bus. It is emblematic of the common experience in public education. But imagine if those same school buses picked up their precious cargo and, rather than stopping at one school, dropped children off at several schools: the local public school, the Montessori school, and the Jewish day-school. This happens in very few places in the United States. But it demonstrates how religious and secular nonpublic schools might be included in a reformed public education system that treats all schools as public schools, even if they are not publicly run.

We can learn from both the successes and failures of the past. Some of the world's great civilizations have thrived under the assumption that education could be provided through a public/private partnership. And if we need reasons why America should allow private and religious schools to receive public aid, we can look into the not-so-distant past.

The history of "public" education

Civilization and education have always gone hand in hand, but not all great civilizations provided public education. In fact, some thrived without state education systems, and those that had provided public education have not been without flaws.

Almost all of what we know about one of the world's first civilizations, Sumer, comes from its government records. The Sumerians did not value general literacy. Instead the Sumerian government trained scribes and priests for the state, demonstrating that public schools do not always provide for the common good, unless "the common good" is narrowly defined as politics.

Ancient Athens demonstrated that a world-transforming culture can rise from a society without public schools. Even though the Greeks believed education should provide universal public literacy and prepare good citizens, parents were largely responsible for paying tutors and did so under great social pressure. Of course, collective payment plans did exist. Some teachers drew their incomes from private endowments that were set up to provide for military orphans.1 This was so successful that the Mediterranean region succumbed to the Greek language, the arts, religion, politics, and culture.

Everything that made Rome great was learned from the Greeks — and improved upon. Roman education was practical and effective where Greek education was idealistic. Both boys and girls were taught their three R's, and they learned both Latin and Greek. And like the Greeks, education in the Roman Republic was privately funded. All but the poorest citizens could afford an education, which was often locally subsidized.

But during Rome's imperial phase, only the wealthiest could afford a good education. In fact, the fall of Rome has been closely linked with the failure of Rome's education system to prepare good local administrators. The lack of education was emblematic of its failure to advance the welfare of all its people. Even with enormous financial resources, the Roman Empire lacked the vision to create a education system worthy of its military and cultural success.

For four centuries, Greek and Roman wisdom survived through the efforts of the Catholic Church. After the fall of Rome, the Church created an education system that effectively reached even the poorest members of society. Parish-level education developed to ensure literate clergy, but the Church did not limit itself to that. By 853, an ecclesiastical council in Rome insisted that all parishes provide elementary instruction and that cathedrals provide education in the liberal arts.

Despite political and social disruption, cathedrals and monasteries were the sites for most of western Europe's literary, artistic, and intellectual expression during the "Dark Ages." Through teaching orders like the Benedictines, who boasted several thousand monasteries at their height, monasteries prepared boys for both secular and consecrated life and succeeded in giving Europe a common language (Latin) and culture. As Europe began to urbanize, more choices in "public" education developed, but it remained fundamentally religious in nature and privately funded by the Church or parents.

Free education for the poor was officially mandated by the Church at the Third Lateran Council (1179), which decreed that every cathedral must assign a master to teach boys too poor to pay the regular fee; parishes and monasteries also established free schools. With few exceptions, priests and brothers taught locally, and their salaries were frequently subsidized by towns. Private, independent schools reappeared in medieval Europe during this time, but they, too, were religious in nature and mission.

For several centuries through the Renaissance, most schools were religious in inspiration and Catholic in name, insofar as they were either run for the Church or by the Church and its priest. Nobody complained about church-state entanglements, because government was limited, inefficient, and frequently far away. Families were more than happy to entrust their children's minds to the same institution they trusted to save their souls. Local political authorities and the rising merchant class supported this system. In fact, religious-based education supplied the intellectual vehicle for the material progress of the Renaissance and modern Europe.

A struggle for control

A fundamental shift occurred in Europe around 1500. Local political authorities began to look with suspicion on religious institutions and did not trust them — or any other private institutions — to provide the kind of education that would make their graduates loyal citizens. Jealous political authorities were quick to embrace education for its ideological potential. This shift away from parental rights to educate their children for the needs of the family toward the state's desire to direct that education for its own ends still remains a tension in education.

Although many schools were run by churches up until 1700, they were increasingly monitored and often directed by the state. In Germany, schools run by the Lutheran church were made to serve political ends. In England, the situation was somewhat better. A two-fold system of state and independent schools developed. But Henry VIII outlawed Catholicism to punish his political enemies, thus closing the massive Catholic school system and depriving thousands of an education to serve his own political advantage.

From the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries; the wealthy in Europe could always afford formal education at a church-school, the municipal school, or they could hire private tutors. Only the churches remained committed to the idea that even the poorest should have access to an education. However, no system existed that could properly educate the middle class and poor for anything more than basic tasks.

In many histories, the rise of the nation-state is heralded as the beginning of truly universal education. However, had European history been different, the state might have viewed existing religious education as an ally in the fight for universal literacy rather than a threat to political authority. State-sponsored education launched a direct assault on its nearest competition, private religious education, rather than working together with existing schools for common goals.

National education

Not only were the early nation-states of Europe suspicious of religious and other private and independent institutions, they were organized on the principle that the best way to organize society is through central control and bureaucracy. Sociologist Max Weber famously describes this centralizing and bureaucratizing thrust as an inescapable element of modernity. The state quickly adopted oversight of education. Schools were no longer deemed creatures of local communities but were created by the state and for the state.

Curricula imposed by these early modern states stressed national and civic identity as German, or French, or English over one's religious identity. The classical education pursued by the Catholic Church, which drew on Greek and Roman sources, was put aside in favor of more chauvinistic curricula. Emperor William II once said that German educators should be preparing "young Germans and not young Greeks or Romans."2 In a nationalist and modern education system, the religious components of education also disappear. Man is understood as primarily political and economic. In other words, we returned to Sumer.

Private and religious education did not disappear entirely; however, in every case where the state took on the project of providing education, private and religious options were driven out, and sometimes, as with France, very intentionally.

England held on to its voluntary education system longer than continental Europe. Well into the nineteenth century, the English preferred to leave education up to parents who could afford to pay and a multitude of charitable organizations to pay for those who couldn't. Charitable groups established schools to serve the poor who worked England's industrial factories. But as the government slowly created a school system for the working classes, charitable and religious schools virtually disappeared, leaving only the elite private schools that catered to the wealthy and well-born.

Developments in continental Europe took a more radical path. In France, Jacobin revolutionaries saw the Catholic Church as an obstacle to their revolutionary aims. So Catholic education was virtually outlawed and replaced with a radically nationalistic system. Francois Guizot, architect of France's education system in the 1830s, wrote, "Government and society are no longer two distinct beings . . . . They are one and the same." He sought to use teachers to promote nationally approved political values.

Likewise in Germany, education was taken out of the hands of the clergy and established as a state ministry in 1787. With the rise of German nationalism, devotion to the state became one of the prime values inculcated in the gymnasia of Prussia.

Historians of education often claim that the goal of universal education was not realized until government began to provide public education. The question remains, however, whether governments must also drive all alternatives or whether private and religious institutions should be included.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, most European countries began abandoning the idea of universal state-sponsored education in favor of flexible systems that fund religious and other private schools. The twentieth century taught us the failure of purely state-run systems since our experiences with Nazism and communism.

Indeed, the greatest triumphs of the last century in politics, culture, and the economy have largely resulted from decentralized control, innovation, and the freedom of individuals to make informed choices. And yet American public education still uses this outmoded model of bureaucratic organization. Education experts talk about federal intervention to set national standards and to finance public education. And they are unwilling to permit local communities to fund existing private schools that, by all accounts, do at least as good a job, and often better.

Yet things were not always this way in America. Public education originally developed without suspicion of religion and local decision-making. Churches and towns cooperated to provide an education for all. It wasn't long, however, before education experts from Europe made their way to the United States with the same hostility to anything other than "public" schools.

Education in early America

If we try to imagine a future in which parents have a real choice, we need only look back to America's colonial past, when government supported education (including religious education) without directly providing it. We have so narrowly conceived public education today that we forget that, to colonial Americans, "public" school meant any school open to the public, serving the public good, and receiving some form of public support. Their education system was very different from our own, but with this supposedly limited education, they conquered a continent.

It is often assumed that there was no formal or organized education before 1840 in the United States. This is flatly false. It is true there was no formalized public school system until then, but parents who wanted their children to receive an education had little trouble finding a school, or starting one with other parents, if one was needed.

Until the 1820s, the states and the national government limited their role in education to funding land grants and modest financial aid programs, frequently supporting religious schools. Indeed, direct state aid to religious schools was common in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois — as long as the funds were used to support education for the poor.3 Parents who could afford it were expected to pay their fair share. And yet education was widely available in all settled portions of America by 1830, with the exception of Southern plantations.

On the frontiers, schools were built as soon as they were needed, generally without government help, and were financed by the donations of religious and civic groups. For example, German immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania created a system of German-speaking Lutheran schools that, by 1820, numbered 342 across the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and North Carolina. These schools were established to preserve cultural identity as much as to transmit Lutheranism. As the population migrated west and the common school began to the dominate in the East, Lutheran schools sprang up in the Midwest, numbering 408 for 26,455 students by 1871. Presbyterian schools were far less successful, because many Presbyterian leaders threw themselves behind Horace Mann's "common school" idea. Dutch Calvinists, however, brought with them a memory of religious oppression by the state and created a school system that grew to 400 schools with 7000 students by the end of the nineteenth century.

Schools were not created or controlled by the states — let alone the federal government — but were the embodiment of what parents and their communities wanted for their children. As James Carper remarks, "These educational opportunities were due primarily to the efforts of parents, churches, voluntary associations, entrepreneurs, and communities. . . . With the exception of charity schooling, with its acculturative mission, most schools embodied the belief systems of their clientele. In sum, the structure of schooling reflected the 'confessional pluralism' of the time and public policy generally recognized and even encouraged diversity."4

Northern states first experimented with public "district schools," which were run by the local government and either charged tuition or relied on property taxes. The United States was slow to follow the European model. For the most part, government resisted the temptation to run schools even as it generously supported them financially at the request of its citizens. Throughout the colonial period, all schools, secular or religious, were considered "public" schools because they served the public good. Despite early attempts at a national education system by notable proponents like Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, local communities jealously guarded their schools and their prerogative to found them, recalling the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1820s that Americans had a talent for local and voluntary initiative.

Nineteenth-century Boston initiated the most ambitious, but perhaps unnecessary, reform. Horace Mann said that his common school movement was a response to an education crisis. But the 1817 census of Boston reported that education at public expense provided for some 2,300 of Boston's students while private schools (both free and tuition-based) took in over 4,000, and that the hundreds of truant children that Mann worried about could have been easily accommodated at private schools at the public expense, as was already the case for many of the city's poor. (Sadly, when the Boston school district took more direct control of education, it effectively drove out these modestly-priced private schools, leaving only the elite academies.)

Other American cities had similar experiences. In the early nineteenth century, New York City subsidized religious education — including Catholic schools — with public money to help provide a free education to the urban poor.5 It was not until 1840 when a Protestant group calling itself the New York Free School Society received a monopoly on these public funds that public support of Catholic schools was all but eliminated.

Catholic education, the largest alternative to public schools today, started slowly in the United States. By 1840, there were at least 200 Catholic parish schools. About half of them were in Kentucky and Missouri, despite the fact that America's eastern cities had larger concentrations of ethnic Catholics. The urban Catholic education boom in the late 1800s can be traced to the economic success and charitable inclinations of new immigrants, who proudly built schools as homage to their faith.

For decades then in our early republic, all schools were "public" schools. That is, they were built by local initiative and funded through a combination of charitable contributions, local government taxes, and the tuition parents believed it was their obligation to provide. Where there was a need, communities responded through collective action in cooperation with limited government. If the colonial education system was working, why do we have such a different public school system today?

Mann's common school

Horace Mann started with the optimistic hope that the common school could provide a common educational experience to shape children into good American citizens. This is fine so far as it goes. All societies have a responsibility to transmit their culture to the next generation and leave society in a better condition. But Mann also believed that the virtues of good citizenship rest on a shared moral and religious foundation and that America's religious and cultural diversity was the enemy of that unity; he sought to lessen diversity.

Despite attempts to paint him as a modern secularist, Mann's vision for the common school was far from morally or religiously empty. He believed in limited moral and religious instruction in a common religious core so benign that no religious person would feel threatened by it. Not coincidentally, thought his opponents, the religious beliefs he taught were those of Mann and his fellow Unitarians.

Likewise, his beliefs about citizenship followed from the belief in an American civil religion. Like many American historians, he saw our political culture as a hybrid of biblical Christianity and enlightenment rationalism. From its Founding, our nation established a "civil religion" between these twin poles and sought to develop an education system to perpetuate it. Mann's common school tried to reconcile those twin poles. He believed that the common school was an adequate replacement for the "sacred space" formerly reserved for the church.

Indeed, public schools from the mid-1800s until the middle of the twentieth century communicated that "common faith" so well that Sidney Mead has written, "Public schools in the United States took over one of the basic responsibilities that traditionally was always assumed by an established church. In this sense the public school system in the United States is its established church."6

But the real myth, as Charles Glenn skillfully shows in his book, The Myth of the Common School, is that public education can adequately promote neutral religious values by papering over important distinctions. Some of the most spirited opposition to the common schools came understandably from religious quarters, demonstrating, as they do today, that some parents conscientiously object to being forced to imbibe the political and religious ends that are inherent in every kind of education.

Calvinists considered the common school teaching of "natural virtuousness" and the method of independent Bible study as direct assaults on their doctrinal beliefs. Catholics were opposed to it on the grounds that being forced to read from a Protestant Bible would corrupt young Catholics. As early as 1828, Bishop Fenwick of Baltimore recognized that "common school" education was a Protestant threat to children "by which their minds are poisoned as it were from their infancy." But Bishop John Hughes of New York believed that the education was not sufficiently religious and said, "If you exclude all sects, you exclude Christianity. Take away the distinctive dogmas, of the Catholics, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and so on, and you have nothing left but deism."

In the pastoral letter of 1840, the American bishops admitted that they were satisfied to see common schools prosper but that the Church was "always better pleased to have a separate system of education for the children of our communion."7 Even by 1852, while the Church worldwide was calling for a reestablishment of Catholic education in the face of growing secularism, Catholics in America were not sufficiently numerous or wealthy to provide an alternative to the growing common school movement. By century's end, however, increasingly successful Catholic immigrants began to construct the largest private alternative to public schools, without government aid.

The common school would not have become so effective without the mandatory attendance laws that most states passed at the end of the nineteenth century. Initially, there were good reasons for such laws, in the first place, to protect children from being overworked. Many children had to toil in factories and on the farm with little time for school because their families needed the money. Compulsory attendance laws, however, further engrained the idea that the state was the sole provider of education and had the right to sanction the kind of education that satisfied the state over the wishes of parents.

Nor should we underestimate the contributions of American education giant, John Dewey, in the first two decades of the twentieth century. His philosophy fundamentally reshaped American education, perhaps even more than Mann's. Until then, even the local common school was thought of as an extension of the home. Dewey taught another gospel: Simply put, schools serve the community (either nation or city), not the needs and wishes of parents. This subtle shift transformed the role of teachers from being servants of parents to servants of the state. Dewey's philosophy of education transformed America's teaching colleges and is universal today.

The "common school" ideal continues to enjoy strong support among the education establishment, sometimes for very self-interested reasons. Today teachers' unions, like the powerful National Education Association (NEA), perpetuate a public monopoly on education, which has built up layer upon layer of bureaucratic apparatus. Federal agencies like the Department of Education, state departments of education, regional and city wide educational bodies, and PTAs, all keep public education from changing and react defensively to opening up the present system to alternatives that would not fall under their jurisdiction.

Time for change

In many ways, the failures of American public education today can be traced back to its failure to live up the highest ideals of its founder, Horace Mann, who was himself influenced by the educational philosophy of eighteenth-century nation-state builders. Mann's system worked only as long as Americans agreed on a loosely Protestant civil religion. Public schools could do the job of moral education for citizenship in addition to fulfilling its academic goals. Today, however, public schools fail to live up to those ideals because educators no longer agree on which commonly shared values should be taught and are often at odds with what parents would desire for their children.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that we can agree on a common moral core, but it is not too much to expect that parents ought to be able to find schools that reflects their values. In that case, there are many good examples of private schools providing truly public education to parents willing to make the financial sacrifices to take advantage of them, and we will look at two examples of alternatives in the next chapter. In every way, private schools and the parents who use them contribute to the common and public good.

Alternatives to public schools can accommodate some of the basic tenets of the common school, general literacy and universal access, without assuming that government bureaucrats should direct our children's educations. Therefore we should consider returning to that older notion of education that informed early colonial education: Parents have the right to direct the education of their children, and both public and private institutions can help reach that goal. In this way, we treat all schools as serving the common good as public schools.


  1. R. Freeman Butts, The Education of the West (New York: McGraw Hill, 1973), p. 109.
  2. Frederick Mayer, Foundations of Education (Columbus, Ohio: C.E. Merrill Books, 1963), p. 60.
  3. R.J. Gabel, Public Funds for Church and Private Schools (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1937).
  4. James C. Carper, "History, Religion, and Schooling," Curriculum, Religion, and Public Education: Conservations for an Enlarging Public Square (Columbia University: Teachers College Press, 1998).
  5. Timothy L. Smith, "Parochial Education and American Culture," in Paul Nash, ed., History & Education (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 206.
  6. Sidney Mead, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).
  7. "Pastoral of 1840," Neil G. McCluskey, ed., Catholic Education in America, a Documentary History (New York: Teachers College, 1964), pp. 58-61.


Jason Boffetti "All Schools Are Public Schools: Ch. 1 - How We Got Public Schools." Faith and Reason Institute (2001).

Reprinted with permission of the Faith and Reason Institute.

The Faith & Reason Institute
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Washington, DC 20036.

Copies of the monograph All Schools Are Public Schools are available from the Faith & Reason Institute for $3.


Jason Boffetti is the Programs Co-ordinator and Research Associate in Education for the Faith and Reason Institute.

Copyright © 2001 Faith and Reason Institute

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Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.