What is Public about Public Schools?


Recent developments in the provision of education mean that the old definitions of "public schooling" no longer hold. Frederick M. Hess offers his suggestions for a broadened definition that will help public education regain its status as a shared ideal. His essay is followed by responses from four educators. This lively exchange — which was featured in the February 2004 issue of Phi Delta Kappan — concludes with a rejoinder by Frederick M. Hess.

THE EDITOR'S PAGE: A Desirable Goal
by Bruce M. Smith
Editor Phi Delta Kappan

FOR MANY years now — even before 1981, when I came on board — members of the Kappan staff have pointed out to all and sundry that the journal "provides a forum for debates on controversial subjects." Indeed, these words have appeared in our listings for librarians and in direct-mail solicitations seeking new members and subscribers.

And the claim is largely true. Anyone who has archived back issues of the Kappan can surely find articles — sometimes side by side — whose authors are in clear disagreement. In order to encourage people to take the risk of publishing controversial ideas, the writer who goes first is given the right to have the last word. Indeed, discussions of this kind have been carried over from issue to issue and even from volume to volume. But in recent years, we've less frequently sought to open the floor to a broad spectrum of debaters for an exchange of views within the covers of a single issue. In this issue, we offer just that.

Beginning on page 433, you'll find a series of six articles. The first, by Frederick Hess, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, asks a provocative question: "What Is 'Public' About Public Schools?" His article is followed by responses from four strong advocates of public education: Linda Nathan, headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy; Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs; Ray Bacchetti, a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Evans Clinchy, a senior consultant at Northeastern University's Institute for Responsive Education. And finally, Hess provides a rejoinder to these four commentaries. I thank them all for their good efforts.

But what's all the fuss about? Isn't it obvious what's "public" about public schools? We all know that public schools are schools that we pay for through our taxes or maybe through dedicated state lottery receipts or perhaps by some other kind of funding arrangement. What's more, these schools are open to everyone and subject to a range of laws that don't apply to private schools.

But the issue Hess is raising is not so simply dismissed. As charter schools continue to pop up like mushrooms after spring rain, with vouchers ruled constitutional (at least at the federal level), as the variety of distance education options available to students continues to grow, and with private firms managing some of the nation's larger school districts, the landscape of public education is clearly changing. And all of these changes are playing out against a backdrop of legal and moral arguments over the equity and adequacy of public education. With this changing landscape, it seems only appropriate to reexamine assumptions that most of us thought would never be called into question.

I urge readers to approach this conversation — for it is more that than it is a debate — with open minds. Hess in his rejoinder divides the issue into two distinct discussions: what is permissible and what is desirable. While courts might rule that a voucher system involving all schools — public, private, secular, and religious — can be constructed to be constitutional, we need to ask ourselves, as citizens, is this a desirable goal? Is it one we should pursue? When and where might it make sense? Though the idea of the permissible versus the desirable appears explicitly only late in the discussion, it can serve as a useful touchstone while you read.

As for me, I have no idea who "won" this exchange. Indeed, I hope the winners turn out to be readers who reflect on the ideas presented and, ultimately, the children those readers serve. For an honest exchange of views, even somewhat heated ones, is more than permissible in these pages. It is highly desirable. — BMS

What Is a "Public School"? Principles for a New Century
by Frederick M. Hess

THE PHRASE "public schooling" has become more a rhetorical device than a useful guide to policy. As our world evolves, so too must our conception of what "public" means. James Coleman eloquently made this point more than two decades ago, implying a responsibility to periodically reappraise our assumptions as to what constitutes "public schooling."1 In a world where charter schooling, distance education, tuition tax credits, and other recent developments no longer fit neatly into our conventional mental boxes, it is clearly time for such an effort. Nonetheless, rather than receiving the requisite consideration, "public schooling" has served as a flag around which critics of these various reforms can rally. It is because the phrase resonates so powerfully that critics of proposals like charter schooling, voucher programs, and rethinking teacher licensure have at times abandoned substantive debate in order to attack such measures as "anti-public schooling."2

Those of us committed to the promise of public education are obliged to see that the ideal does not become a tool of vested interests. The perception that public schooling has strayed from its purpose and been captured by self-interested parties has fueled lacerating critiques in recent years. Such critics as Andrew Coulson and Douglas Dewey find a growing audience when they suggest that the ideal of public schooling itself is nothing more than a call to publicly subsidize the private agendas of bureaucrats, education school professors, union officials, and leftist activists.3 While I believe such attacks are misguided, answering them effectively demands that we discern what it is that makes schooling public and accept diverse arrangements that are consistent with those tenets. Otherwise, growing numbers of reformers may come to regard public schooling as a politicized obstacle rather than a shared ideal.

While I do not aim to provide a precise answer as to what public schooling should mean in the early 21st century, I will argue that public schools are broadly defined by their commitment to preparing students to be productive members of a social order, aware of their societal responsibilities, and respectful of constitutional strictures; that such schools cannot deny access to students for reasons unrelated to their educational focus; and that the system of public schools available in any community must provide an appropriate placement for each student. In short, I suggest that it is appropriate to adopt a much more expansive notion of public schooling than the one the education community holds today.

What Isn't Public?

Traditionally, "public schools" are deemed to be those directly accountable to elected officials or funded by tax dollars.4 As a practical matter, such definitions are not very useful, largely because there are conventional "public" schools that do not fit within these definitions, while there are "private" providers that do.

We generally regard as "public schools" those in which policy making and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools or educational management organizations (EMOs), are labeled "nonpublic." The distinction is whether a formal political body is in charge, since these officials are accountable by election or appointment to the larger voting "public."

There are two particular problems here. First, how "hands on" must the government be for us to regard a service as publicly provided? The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Education, and most other state, federal, and local government agencies contract with for-profit firms for support, to provide services, and to evaluate service delivery. Yet we tend to regard the services as "public" because they were initiated in response to a public directive and are monitored by public officials. It is not clear when government-directed activity ceases to be public. For instance, if a for-profit company manages a district school, is the school less public than it was when it purchased its texts from a for-profit textbook publisher and its professional development from a private consultant?

A second approach to defining "public" focuses on inputs. By this metric, any activity that involves government funds is public because it involves the expenditure of tax dollars. However, this distinction is more nebulous than we sometimes suppose. For instance, schools in the Milwaukee voucher program receive Wisconsin tax dollars. Does this mean that voucher schools ought to be regarded as de facto public schools? Similarly, Wisconsin dairy farmers receive federal subsidies. Does this make their farms public enterprises?

A particular complication is that many traditional public schools charge families money. For instance, during 2002-03, the families of more than 2,300 Indiana students were paying tuition of as much as $6,000 to enroll their children in a public school in another district. Public schools routinely charge fees to families that participate in interdistrict public choice plans, and they frequently charge families fees if a child participates in extracurricular activities. Would proponents of a revenue-based definition suggest that such practices mean that these schools are no longer "public"?

A third approach, famously advanced by John Dewey, the esteemed champion of "public" education, recognizes that private institutions may serve public ends and that public institutions may fail to do so.5 Such a recognition suggests that public schools are those that serve public ends, regardless of the monitoring arrangements or revenue sources. This approach is ultimately problematic, however, because we do not have clear agreement on appropriate public purposes. I'll have more to say on this point shortly.

What Is Public Schooling?

Previously, I have posed five questions to guide our efforts to bring more precision to our understanding of "public schooling."6 Here, I offer these questions as a way to sketch principles that may help shape a contemporary conception of "public schooling."

What are the purposes of public schooling? Schooling entails both public and private purposes, though we often fail to note the degree to which the private benefits may serve the public interest. In particular, academic learning serves the individual and also the needs of the state. Successful democratic communities require a high level of literacy and numeracy and are anchored by the knowledge and the good sense of the population. Citizens who lack these skills are less likely to contribute effectively to the well-being of their communities and more likely to be a drain on public resources. Therefore, in a real sense, any school that helps children master reading, writing, mathematics, and other essential content is already advancing some significant public purposes.7 It is troubling that prominent educational thinkers, including Frank Smith, Susan Ohanian, Deborah Meier, and Alfie Kohn, have rejected this fundamental premise and encouraged "public schools" to promote preferred social values even at the expense of basic academic mastery.8

More fundamentally, there are two distinct ways to comprehend the larger public purposes of education. One suggests that schools serve a public interest that transcends the needs of individuals. This line of thought, understood by Rousseau as the "general will," can be traced to Plato's conviction that nations need a far-sighted leader to determine their true interests, despite the shortsighted preferences of the mob. A second way of thinking about the public purposes of education accepts the classically "liberal" understanding of the public interest as the sum of the interests of individual citizens and rejects the idea of a transcendent general will. This pragmatic stance helped shape American public institutions that protect citizens from tyrannical majorities and overreaching public officials.

While neither perspective is necessarily "correct," our government of limited powers and separate branches leans heavily toward the more modest dictates of liberalism. Despite our tendency to suffuse education with the sweeping rhetoric of a disembodied national interest, our freedoms are secured by a system designed to resist such imperial visions.

The "public" components of schooling include the responsibility for teaching the principles, habits, and obligations of citizenship. While schools of education typically interpret this to mean that educators should preach "tolerance" or affirm "diversity," a firmer foundation for citizenship education would focus on respect for law, process, and individual rights. The problem with phrases like "tolerance" and "diversity" is that they are umbrella terms with multiple interpretations. When we try to define them more precisely — in policy or practice — it becomes clear that we must privilege some values at the expense of others. For instance, one can plausibly argue that tolerant citizens should respectfully hear out a radical Muslim calling for jihad against the U.S. or that tolerance extends only to legalistic protection and leaves one free to express social opprobrium. If educators promote the former, as their professional community generally advises, they have adopted a particular normative view that is at odds with that held by a large segment of the public.

Promoting any one particular conception of tolerance does not make schools more "public." In a liberal society, uniformly teaching students to accept teen pregnancy or homosexuality as normal and morally unobjectionable represents a jarring absolutism amidst profound moral disagreement.

Nonetheless, many traditional "public" schools (such as members of the Coalition of Essential Schools) today explicitly promote a particular world view and endorse a particular social ethos. In advancing "meaningful questions," for instance, faculty members at these schools often promote partisan attitudes toward American foreign policy, the propriety of affirmative action, or the morality of redistributive social policies. Faculty members in these schools can protest that they have no agenda other than cultivating critical inquiry, but observation of classrooms or perusal of curricular materials makes clear that most of these schools are not neutral on the larger substantive questions. This poses an ethical problem in a pluralist society where the parents of many students may reject the public educators' beliefs and where the educators have never been clearly empowered to stamp out "improper" thoughts.

Public schools should teach children the essential skills and knowledge that make for productive citizens, teach them to respect our constitutional order, and instruct them in the framework of rights and obligations that secure our democracy and protect our liberty. Any school that does so should be regarded as serving public purposes.

How should we apportion responsibility between families and public schools? The notion that schools can or should serve as a "corrective" against the family was first promulgated in the early 19th century by reformers who viewed the influx of immigrants as a threat to democratic processes and American norms. In the years since, encouraged by such thinkers as George Counts, Paulo Freire, Michael Apple, Peter McLaren, and Amy Gutmann, educational thinkers have unapologetically called for schooling to free students from the yoke of their family's provincial understandings.

The problem is that this conception of the "public interest" rests uneasily alongside America's pluralist traditions. American political thought, dating back to Madison's pragmatic embrace of "faction," has presumed that our various prejudices and biases can constructively counter one another, so long as the larger constitutional order and its attendant protections check our worst impulses.

The notion that schools are more "public" when they work harder to stamp out familial views and impress children with socially approved beliefs is one that ought to give pause to any civil libertarian or pluralist. Such schools are more attuned to the public purposes of a totalitarian regime than those of a democratic one. While a democratic nation can reasonably settle upon a range of state/family relationships, there is no reason to imagine that a regime that more heavily privileges the state is more "public." The relative "publicness" of education is not enhanced by having schools intrude more forcefully into the familial sphere.

Who should be permitted to provide public schooling? Given publicly determined purposes, it is not clear that public schooling needs to impose restrictions on who may provide services. There is no reason why for-profit or religious providers, in particular, ought to be regarded as suspect.

While traditional public schools have always dealt with for-profit providers of textbooks, teaching supplies, professional development, and so on, profit-seeking ventures have recently emerged as increasingly significant players in reform efforts. For instance, the for-profit, publicly held company Edison Schools is today managing scores of traditional district schools across the nation. Yet these are still regarded as "public" schools. In fact, Edison is managing the summer school programs, including curricula and personnel, for more than 70 public school districts. Yet those communities continue to regard summer school as public schooling.

Such arrangements seem to run afoul of our conventional use of the term "public," but the conflict is readily resolved when we recognize that all public agencies, including public hospitals and public transit systems, routinely harness the services of for-profit firms. Just as a public university is not thought to lose its public status merely because portions of it enter into for-profit ventures with regard to patents or athletics, so the entry of for-profit providers into a K-12 public school does not necessarily change the institution's fundamental nature. What matters in public higher education is whether the for-profit unit is controlled and overseen by those entrusted with the university's larger public mission. What matters in public schooling is whether profit seekers are hired to serve public ends and are monitored by public officials.

The status of religious providers has raised great concern among such groups as People for the American Way and the Center on Education Policy. However, the nation's early efforts to provide public education relied heavily upon local church officials to manage public funds, to provide a school facility, and to arrange the logistics of local schooling. It was not until the anti-Catholic fervor of the mid- and late-19th century that states distanced themselves from religious schooling. It was not until the mid-20th century that advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union pushed the remnants of religion out of state-run schools.

In recent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the push for a "wall of separation" had overreached and run afoul of First Amendment language protecting the "free exercise" of religion. Moreover, contemporary America has continued to evolve since the anti-Catholic zeal of the 19th century and the anti-religious intellectualism of the mid-20th century. Those conflicts were of a particular time and place. Today, church officials have less local sway and lack the unquestioned authority they once held, while they are more integrated into secular society. Just as some one-time opponents of single-sex schools can now, because of changes in the larger social order, imagine such schools serving the public interest, so too we should not reflexively shrink from viewing religious schools in a similar light. In most industrial democracies, including such nations as Canada, France, and the Netherlands, religious schools operate as part of the public system and are funded and regulated accordingly.

What obligations should public schools have to ensure opportunity for all students? We have never imagined that providing opportunity to all students means treating all students identically. The existence of magnet schools, special education, gifted classes, and exam schools makes it clear that we deem it appropriate for schools to select some children and exclude others in order to provide desirable academic environments. Our traditional school districts have never sought to ensure that every school or classroom should serve a random cross-section of children, only that systems as a whole should appropriately serve all children.

Given the tension between families who want their child schooled in an optimal environment and public officials who must construct systems that address competing needs, the principle that individual schools can exclude children but that systems cannot is both sensible and morally sound. That said, this principle does mean that some children will not attend school with the peers their parents might prefer.

The dilemma this presents is that no solitary good school can serve all the children who might wish to attend and that randomly admitting students may impede a school's effectiveness. Demanding that a science magnet school accept students with minimal science accomplishments or that any traditional school accept a habitually violent student threatens the ability of each school to accomplish its basic purposes. This is clearly not in the public interest. The same is true when a constructivist school is required to admit students from families who staunchly prefer back-to-basics instruction and will agitate for the curricula and pedagogy they prefer. In such cases, allowing schools to selectively admit students is consistent with the public interest — so long as the process furthers a legitimate educational purpose and the student has access to an appropriate alternative setting. Such publicly acceptable exclusion must be pursued for some reasonable educational purpose, and this creates a gray area that must be monitored. However, the need to patrol this area does not require that the practice be preemptively prohibited.

Federal courts and state legislatures are indisputably public institutions, yet they frequently procure supplies, services, and personnel from privately run, for-profit enterprises. We properly regard these institutions as public because of their core purposes.

Moreover, self-selected or homogeneous communities are not necessarily less public than others. For instance, no one suggests that the University of Wyoming is less public than the University of Texas, though it is less geographically and ethnically representative of the nation. It has never been suggested that elections in San Francisco or Gopher Springs, West Virginia, would be more public if the communities included more residents who had not chosen to live there or whose views better reflected national norms. Nor has it been suggested that selective public institutions, such as the University of Michigan, are less public than are community colleges, even though they are selective about whom they admit. Moreover, there is always greater homogeneity in self-selected communities, such as magnet schools, as they attract educators and families who share certain views. None of this has been thought to undermine their essential "publicness."

Even champions of "public education," such as Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer, argue that this shared sense of commitment helps cultivate a participatory and democratic ethos in self-selected schools. In other words, heightened familial involvement tends to make self-selected schools more participatory and democratic. Kneeling before the false gods of heterogeneity or nonselectivity undermines our ability to forge participatory or effective schools without making schools commensurately more "public."

Nowhere, after all, does the availability of a "public service" imply that we get to choose our fellow users. In every field — whether public medicine, public transportation, or public higher education — the term "public" implies our right to a service, not our right to have buses serve a particular route or to have a university cohort configured to our preferences. Even though such considerations influence the quality of the service, the need for public providers to juggle the requirements of all the individuals they must serve necessarily means that each member of the public cannot necessarily receive the service in the manner he or she would ultimately prefer. "Public schooling" implies an obligation to ensure that all students are appropriately served, not that every school is open to all comers.

What parts of public schooling are public? Debates about publicness focus on the classroom teaching and learning that is central to all schools. Maintenance, accounting, payroll, and food services are quite removed from the public purposes of education discussed above. Even though these peripheral services may take place in the same facility as teaching and learning, their execution does not meaningfully affect the "publicness" of schooling. Rather, we understand that it is sufficient to have ancillary services provided in a manner that is consistent with the wishes of a public education provider. For example, federal courts and state legislatures are indisputably public institutions, yet they frequently procure supplies, services, and personnel from privately run, for-profit enterprises. We properly regard these institutions as public because of their core purposes, not because of the manner in which they arrange their logistics.

Today's 'Public' Schools Often Aren't

Given the haphazard notion of public schooling that predominates today, it comes as little surprise that we offer contemporary educators little guidance in serving the public interest. This poses obvious problems, given that employment as an educator doesn't necessarily grant enhanced moral wisdom or personal virtue. If schools are to serve as places where educators advance purposes and cultivate virtues that they happen to prefer, it is not clear in what sense schools are serving "public purposes."

Blindly hoping that educators have internalized shared public purposes, we empower individuals to proselytize under the banner of "public schooling." This state of affairs has long been endorsed by influential educational theorists like George Counts, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Nel Noddings, who argue that teachers have a charge to use their classrooms to promote personal visions of social change, regardless of the broader public's beliefs. For these thinkers, "public schooling" ironically implies a community obligation to support schools for the private purposes of educators. The problem is that public institutions are not personal playthings. Just as it is unethical for a judge to disregard the law and instead rule on the basis of personal whimsy, so it is inappropriate for public school teachers to use their office to impose personal views upon a captive audience.

One appropriate public response is to specify public purposes and to demand that teachers reflect them, though we are reasonably cautious about adopting such an intrusive course. To the extent that explicit direction is absent, however, educators are left to their own devices. In such a case, our liberal tradition would recommend that we not subject children to the views of educators at an assigned school but allow families to avail themselves of a range of schools with diverse perspectives, so long as each teaches respect for our democratic and liberal tradition.


Today, our system of "public schooling" does little to ensure that our schools serve public purposes, while permitting some educators to use a publicly provided forum to promote their personal beliefs. Meanwhile, hiding behind the phrase's hallowed skirts are partisans who furiously attack any innovation that threatens their interests or beliefs.

There are many ways to provide legitimate public education. A restrictive state might tightly regulate school assignment, operations, and content, while another state might impose little regulation. However, there is no reason to regard the schools in the one state as more "public" than those in the other. The "publicness" of a school does not depend on class size, the use of certified teachers, rules governing employee termination, or the rest of the procedural apparatus that ensnares traditional district schools. The fact that public officials have the right to require public schools to comply with certain standards does not mean that schools subjected to more intrusive standards are somehow more public. The inclusion of religious schools in European systems, for instance, has been accompanied by intensive regulation of curricula and policy. Regulation on that order is not desirable, nor is it necessary for schools to operate as part of a public system; it is merely an operational choice made by officials in these relatively bureaucratic nations.

As opportunities to deliver, structure, and practice education evolve, it is periodically necessary to revisit assumptions about what constitutes public schooling. The ideology and institutional self-interest that infuse the dominant current conception have fueled withering attacks on the very legitimacy of public schooling itself. Failure to address this impoverished status quo will increasingly offer critics cause to challenge the purpose and justification of public education. Maintaining and strengthening our commitment to public schooling requires that we rededicate ourselves to essential principles of opportunity, liberal democracy, and public benefit, while freeing ourselves from political demands and historic happenstance.

In an age when social and technological change have made possible new approaches to teaching and learning, pinched renderings of "public schooling" have grown untenable and counterproductive. They stifle creative efforts, confuse debates, and divert attention from more useful questions. A more expansive conception is truer to our traditions, more likely to foster shared values, and better suited to the challenges of the new century.


  1. James Coleman, "Public Schools, Private Schools, and the Public Interest," Public Interest, Summer 1981, pp. 19-30. See also idem, "Quality and Equality in American Education," Phi Delta Kappan, November 1981, pp. 159-64.

  2. For the best empirical examination of the scope and nature of the "public school ideology," see Terry Moe, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 2001).

  3. See Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999); and Douglas Dewey, "An Echo, Not a Choice: School Vouchers Repeat the Error of Public Education," Policy Review, November/December 1996, www.policyreview.org/nov96/backup/dewey.html.

  4. See Frederick M. Hess, "Making Sense of the 'Public' in Public Education," unpublished paper, Progressive Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., 2002.

  5. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (1927; reprint, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1954).

  6. See Frederick M. Hess, "What Is 'Public' About Public Education?," Education Week, 8 January 2003, p. 56.

  7. An extended discussion of this point can be found in Paul T. Hill, "What Is Public About Public Education?," in Terry Moe, ed., A Primer on America's Schools (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution, 2001), pp. 285-316.

  8. Frank Smith, "Overselling Literacy," Phi Delta Kappan, January 1989, pp. 353-59; Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986); Susan Ohanian, "Capitalism, Calculus, and Conscience," Phi Delta Kappan, June 2003, pp. 736-47; and Deborah Meier, "Educating a Democracy," in idem, ed., Will Standards Save Public Education? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).


Frederick M. Hess, "What Is a 'Public School'? Principles for a New Century," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 433-439.


Frederick M. Hess, a former high school social studies teacher, is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC. His most recent book Common Sense School Reform, was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan. He is the editor, along with Chester E. Finn Jr., of Leaving No Child Behind?: Options for Kids in Failing Schools.



A Response to Frederick Hess: The Larger Purpose of Public Schools
by Linda Nathan

While there are points on which they can agree, Ms. Nathan questions whether Mr. Hess is truly interested in strengthening public education.

AT TIMES I want to cheer for Frederick Hess' words in "What Is a 'Public School'? Principles for a New Century." How true it is that many reformers "regard public schooling as a politicized obstacle rather than a shared ideal." How true that "those of us committed to the promise of public education are obliged to see that the idea does not become a tool of vested interests."

Yet there is also something chilling about his article that stops the cheer in my throat. His use of innuendo in place of evidence, his sloppy logic, and his attacks on some of the most effective public school reformers — painting them as the enemy — suggest that his real agenda is not strengthening public education but privatizing it through vouchers and for-profit takeover schemes.

Hess' labored analysis obscures a simple fact: public schools have a larger and more democratic purpose than private and parochial schools (although this is not to say that these schools contribute nothing to public life). Public school systems are open to everyone regardless of disability, wealth, status, race, or religion. Private and parochial schools are not. While some are more open than others, they can have entrance exams and can explicitly exclude students with disabilities or those who otherwise don't fit a preferred profile. And of course they can also exclude those who can't pay. They can expel students who cause trouble, at their sole discretion, without recourse.

Hess himself acknowledges this core principle of universal access, conceding that public schooling "implies an obligation to ensure that all students are appropriately served." But he seems indifferent to the inequities inherent in his "more expansive" notion of what makes a school public.

Hess makes a false analogy when he equates schools that buy textbooks from for-profit companies with schools that are managed by for-profit firms. Basic educational decisions should be made by citizens of the local school community — not by distant shareholders looking only at a corporate balance sheet. (It's ironic that Hess picks as his exemplar Edison Schools, Inc., which sold off the textbooks, computers, lab supplies, and musical instruments of the Philadelphia public schools it had been hired to manage just days before school was to open in 2002 in order to pay down the company's mounting debt.)

Hess objects to teaching "tolerance" and affirming "diversity" because, he says, these words are open to multiple interpretations. Then he states that "public schools should teach children the essential skills and knowledge that make for productive citizens" and "teach them to respect our constitutional order," as if these were absolute truths not open to interpretation. The example of tolerance he cites, wherein a radical Muslim is calling for jihad, slyly exploits a hot-button issue to imply that the "professional community" of educators condones terrorism. Similarly, he smears the notion of defending tolerance as "uniformly teaching students to accept teen pregnancy as normal" and implies that liberals equate these activities with their definition of "public schooling." Nonsense.

His attack on Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, and others is equally baseless. It's the classic straw man fallacy: he attributes a position to them — that they oppose the teaching of basic academic mastery in favor of promoting "preferred social values" — that they have in fact never espoused. Meier's argument, with which Hess is surely familiar, is that such a tradeoff is unnecessary and that strong academic habits and mastery of literacy are essential and are furthered by an intellectually open and challenging spirit of inquiry.

The Coalition of Essential Schools, another of Hess' targets, gets similar treatment. Without offering a single example or other evidence of any kind, he asserts that faculty members at Coalition schools routinely promote partisan political views and are determined to "stamp out 'improper' thoughts." Of course, he's right that some teachers and schools — including many private and religious schools — do have a "party line," whether they're conscious of it or not. But he wants to have it both ways. While he attacks Coalition teachers for promoting values he dislikes, he argues at the same time that there should be choice in education so that parents can select schools that reflect their values.

We need schools that help young people and adults learn and practice the skills necessary to be participants in a vibrant democracy.

Hess' argument with regard to the personal views and political leanings of educators is simply a red herring. The underlying issue is his fear that his own preferred values are being "stamped out." He uses that phrase again in making the absurd claim that the goal of liberal educators is to subvert the influence of families on their children. If he were serious about the rights of parents, Hess would be attacking the idea of a federalized education system — with or without vouchers — in which the state defines which values, priorities, intellectual habits, and performance standards will dominate and in which schools must accept intrusive guidelines to receive a stamp of approval and public funding. It seems to me that his scorn should fall not on Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer but on George W. Bush and the other proponents of top-down standardization.

Hess wants teachers to promote respect for the law — unless the laws in question are those that guarantee equal rights to people regardless of sexual orientation. When I began teaching in the late 1970s, it was dangerous for a teacher to be homosexual, not because of students' or parents' reactions but because of administrative reprisals. And it was dangerous in those days to talk about the threat of nuclear war or to suggest that the U.S.-sponsored war in El Salvador was unjust or even to imply that there was another view of these issues than the government's. My colleagues daily taught their students that might was right and homosexuality was a sin. I had my tires slashed by colleagues who felt that desegregation had ruined the Boston Public Schools. That we have created schools in which more open dialogue is possible indeed represents progress.

In calling for more innovation and choice in public education, Hess is absolutely right. In diversity, after all, there is strength. The U.S. has tried many experiments in public schooling over the past two centuries. We are in the midst of yet another experiment with our charter schools. In many ways, this kind of exploration is healthy. It allows us to look at different models and seek out best practices. Yet the charter school experiment has largely ignored issues of equity. In Boston and many other districts, charter schools often make no provision for accepting students who require special educational services or facilities, while traditional public schools are required to do so. This is one reason that some see charter schools as less "public" than other public schools. The same inequities exist in many parochial schools.

We need schools that help young people and adults learn and practice the skills necessary to be participants in a vibrant democracy. Such schools will be messy places that must balance the public interest with America's pluralist tradition. In their classrooms everyone learns to ask probing questions, to use evidence well, to make legitimate arguments, and to recognize fallacies and lies. I invite Frederick Hess to come to the Boston Arts Academy, where we will be happy to give him the opportunity to practice these skills with our students.


Linda Nathan, "A Response to Frederick Hess: The Larger Purpose of Public Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 440-441.


LINDA NATHAN is headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, a public high school of visual and performing arts.

A Response to Frederick Hess: Some Questions for Advocates of Public Education
by Joe Nathan

At this point in his long and varied career in public education, Mr. Nathan is beginning to doubt some of his previous stances about the principles under which public schools should operate. He remains, however, a staunch supporter of public charter schools.

THREE VERY specific questions for advocates of public education came to my mind as I read Frederick Hess' argument that we need to "reappraise our assumptions as to what constitutes 'public schooling.'" Let me pose them to Kappan readers, who no doubt are advocates for public education.

What is public about a suburban district in which the price of admission to the local public schools is the ability to purchase a home for more than one million dollars (and to pay tax-deductible property taxes on that home)?

What is public about an inner-city school with an admissions test that screens out all students with mental disabilities and more than 95% of the students in the surrounding district and so proclaims that it serves only the "cream of the crop"?

What is public about preventing some inner-city students from attending a magnet school just a few blocks from their homes that receives $1,500 per pupil more than the neighborhood school they attend? At the same time, in the name of integration, white students from wealthy suburbs are transported to this school — some via taxi.

These three questions form the basis for two larger questions that continue to trouble me even after being involved with public education for 33 years. I don't have definitive answers to these larger questions. But I share them with readers in the hope that they, too, will find them worth pondering.

  • Since all public schools are not open to all kinds of students, what admissions standards should be acceptable for schools supported by public funds?

  • Shouldn't schools we describe as public accept and use some of the country's basic ideas to help improve education?

Before commenting on these questions, I'd like to shed some light on why they are so central to me. A brief overview of my experience will help explain.

I began my first teaching job in September 1970. The Minneapolis Public Schools hired me to teach social studies and writing to youngsters aged 12 to 14. These young people attended a 50-student school called the YES Center. They were the students that other Minneapolis schools most wanted to remove from their buildings. Among this group were young men and women who were guilty of theft, assault, and assault with a deadly weapon.

There were wonderful moments that year, like the four days 10 students and I spent camping on the shores of Lake Superior. We explored a waterfall 80 feet high, the first waterfall any of the students had seen. Though these young people were tough and knowledgeable about drugs, sex, and weapons, most worried a great deal about a bear or moose attack. (Didn't happen.) Some of these "tough" youngsters even brought dolls to sleep with them.

We hiked in the woods, waded in a river, and threw rocks into Lake Superior. A talented park ranger explained how the land and water constantly do battle with each other.

The trip calmed the students and built greater trust among us. But it did not end their problems.

In that first year of teaching, there were also some very bad moments, such as the morning a student pulled a knife on me and demanded I get out of the way so he could leave class. I don't know why he pulled the knife or what I might have done to be more successful with him. Several years later, he killed another teenager.

That year convinced me that it was a bad idea to put a group of very angry, troubled young people together in one school. So, in my spare time, I helped others in Minneapolis design a new public school that would be open to all kinds of students. It would be located in the same troubled neighborhood where I lived and where the YES Center was located. Parents, teachers, some students, and many community members met with district officials and planned the school. The district officials encouraged us — until April.

In April the district announced that it had received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to open five new schools in another neighborhood. And our plans were shelved.

Fortunately, other parents, teachers, community members, and students had convinced the St. Paul district, just across the river, to create a new K-12 public option for about 500 students. A committee made up of educators, parents, and community members interviewed and hired me to be among the first faculty members for this school. That K-12 option, the St. Paul Open School, is now in its 33rd year as part of the St. Paul Public Schools. The school helped pioneer various ideas, such as:

  • an advisor/advisee system that begins in August, before school starts, with a conference between the student, the teacher, and the student's family;

  • combining classroom work and community service;

  • using the community and surrounding areas as a place in which to learn;

  • using talented community members to help teach classes or in some cases to teach entire classes; and

  • basing graduation entirely on the demonstration of skills and knowledge, using both traditional paper-and-pencil tests and performances.

This inner-city public school has been doing these things for more than three decades. Along the way, it has had 11 principals, some of whom strongly opposed the school's ideals.

In the 25 years since I worked at the school, I've also served as an assistant principal for a traditional urban junior/senior high school; served as PTA president for the urban public school our youngsters attended; coordinated a project for the National Governors' Association focusing on the most important things governors should do to improve public education; been invited to testify by 22 state legislatures and eight congressional committees; written a regular column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press; and coordinated several major efforts funded by, among others, the Annenberg Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For the last 29 years, I have been married to an inner-city public school teacher who works with special education students. We have parented three children, all of whom attended urban public schools with no admissions tests (two are now working in the local district).

I apologize for this lengthy bio. Now for those two troubling questions.

  1. Since all public schools are not open to all kinds of students, what admissions standards should be acceptable for schools supported by public funds? When my teachers in the Wichita public schools talked about public education, they stressed that a key difference between public and private schools was that public schools were open to all. Many of the authorities I read while I was at Carleton College, preparing to become a teacher, said the same thing.

    This idea of "open to all" makes great sense to me. It seems like the right and just way to operate. Hess writes that he thinks it "appropriate" for some public schools to select some children and exclude others. I've disagreed with this position for more than 30 years. But lately, I'm not so sure.

    When I began teaching I learned that many public schools were not open to all students. As I traveled the country, I learned that there were more than a thousand magnet schools and programs that have admissions tests. A study some years ago found that more than half of the nation's secondary magnet schools have admissions tests, as do about a quarter of the elementary magnets.1

    Wisconsin Rep. Polly Williams, a Democrat and an African American state legislator, was enraged because most of the youngsters in her inner-city Milwaukee district were not able to get into exclusive magnet schools in the neighborhood, which brought in affluent, white, suburban students. Her frustration led her to fight successfully for the nation's first formal voucher plan.

    Some opponents of vouchers insist that a level playing field isn't available when private schools can cherry-pick their students. I agree. But many educators, including me, have the same frustration about elite magnet schools: they have an unfair advantage over neighborhood public schools that are open to all in that they can screen out students with whom they don't wish to work.

    I also learned that the country's single biggest choice system is called the suburbs. Millions of youngsters attend schools in the suburbs, and these schools clearly are not open to all students. They are open only to those whose families can afford to live in suburban communities.

    A few years ago, I visited a school district on the northern coast of Long Island. Administrators there told me that the least expensive home in the district sold for $1,000,000. None of the district's teachers could afford to live there.

    Today, some people argue that there should be publicly funded schools that are open only to young women. Two such schools have opened — one in New York, the other in Chicago. Even though I was not fond of this type of school, I visited the New York City district school, Young Women's Leadership Academy. I was impressed. The young women reported that, without boys around, they felt much more comfortable raising their hands in class and much more comfortable doing well on tests.

    Should public funds go to some schools of choice that are only open to women? Or only to men? Five years ago, I would have said emphatically not. Today, I don't know.

  2. Shouldn't schools we describe as public accept and use some of the country's basic ideas to help improve education? Americans generally endorse a number of ideas:

    • choice of religion, job, neighborhood, places to obtain services, and so on;

    • the provision of opportunities to try new ideas and approaches;

    • the shared belief that this is a country not just of rights, but of responsibilities; and

    • the notions that our cherished freedoms are not unlimited.

However, for three decades I've watched major public education groups vigorously oppose school choice programs, including public school choice programs, that are built on these principles. For example, there was intense opposition from educators in 1970 to the creation of the St. Paul Open School.

These organized groups ignore the professional and pedagogical rationales for public school choice, expressed best by veteran educator Deborah Meier:

Choice is an essential tool in the effort to create . . . good public education. . . . We'll have to allow those most involved (teachers, administrators, parents) to exercise greater on-site power to put their collective wisdom into practice. Once we do all this, however, school X and school Y are going to start doing things differently. . . . Creating a school different from what any of those who work in the system are familiar with, one that runs counter to the experiences of most families, is possible only if teachers, parents, and students have time to agree on changes and a choice on whether or not they want to go along with them.2

Colleagues involved in other efforts to create new options over the last three decades have had similar experiences. During his tenure as president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker described what happened to teachers who proposed schools-within-schools:

Many schools-within-schools were or are treated like traitors or outlaws for daring to move out of the lockstep and do something different. Their initiators had to move Heaven and Earth to get school officials to authorize them, and if they managed that, often they could look forward to insecurity, obscurity, or outright hostility.3
Over the past decade, with help from the Gates, Blandin, and Annenberg Foundations, the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota has tried to help educators create new schools-within-schools in a number of communities. Shanker's words have often proved to be very accurate. The most intense, vigorous critics of offering a different kind of school — whether in a single building or in a district — have often been other educators.

Legislatures allocate money for the education of children, not for the preservation of a system. If 50 students move from a city to a suburb or from a suburb to a city, the dollars follow them. The money doesn't belong to "the system."

Many educators have argued over the past 30 years that public, district schools serving racial minorities and students from low-income families are doing the best job they can with existing funds. According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 80% of the public thinks the achievement gap between white children and minority children is mostly related to factors other than the quality of schooling.4

Perhaps in part because some educators have helped to convince the public that inner-city schools are mostly not responsible for the achievement gap, 58% of the nation and 62% of public school parents think it is possible to narrow the achievement gap without spending more money than is currently being spent on these students.5 Unfortunately, many state legislators are opting not to raise taxes and not to give more to schools serving low-income, limited-English-speaking students.

Some of us vigorously disagree with these legislative actions and think that both more public school choice and more funding would help reduce the achievement gap. We have seen — and in some cases have worked in — schools that have served the public interest by helping all youngsters achieve their potential and have done much to close the gap between students of different races. This has led to efforts such as those described above: the creation of Pilot Schools in Boston, New Visions Schools in New York City, and a charter sector in public education.

Despite encouragement from such strong public school supporters as former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), efforts to create independent charter public schools still face huge opposition from state teacher, school board, and superintendent groups. The opposition uses the same arguments used in 1970 against the St. Paul Open School: new options take away our money.

But it isn't their money. Legislatures allocate money for the education of children, not for the preservation of a system. If 50 students move from a city to a suburb or from a suburb to a city, the dollars follow them. The money doesn't belong to "the system."

Thousands of parents and educators are voting with their feet. The number of states with a charter law has gone from one in 1991 to 40 in 2003. The number of charter schools has gone from one school in 1991 to more than 3,000 in 2003. Federal statistics show that low-income students and racial minorities are overrepresented in charter schools. While the evidence is mixed — and almost certainly will be so when charter and district schools are compared — some charters are clearly producing major achievement gains. Shouldn't we learn from and replicate their best practices?

Starting new schools is extremely difficult work. But whether it's a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools or a New Visions option in New York City or a charter school in any of 40 states, the opportunity to try new approaches is as vital for education as it is for medicine, business, or technology.

Some Tentative Conclusions

So Frederick Hess wants to "discern what . . . makes schooling public and accept diverse arrangements that are consistent with those tenets." I'm not sure what standards all publicly supported schools should meet. But after 33 years, I offer these as minimum requirements for schools that serve the public interest and are thus eligible to receive public funds. Public schools should:

  • be open to all kinds of students and not use admissions tests;

  • follow due process procedures with regard to students and educators;

  • use state-approved, standardized, and other measures to help monitor student progress or lack thereof;

  • have closing the achievement gap between white students and racial minority and low-income students as an explicit, measurable goal;6 and

  • be actively chosen by faculty, families, and students.

Thanks to Hess and to the Kappan for urging a timely reconsideration of the basic principles of public education. As social justice activist Leonard Fein states it:

The future is not something we discover around the next corner. It is something we shape, we create, we invent. To hold otherwise would be to view ourselves as an audience to history, and not its authors. History, and even our own lives, cannot always be turned and twisted to make them go exactly where we should like. But there is, for people of energy and purpose, more freedom of movement than most ever exercise.7


  1. Lauri Steel and Roger Levine, Educational Innovation in Multiracial Contexts: The Growth of Magnet Schools in American Education (Palo Alto, Calif.: American Institutes for Research, 1994). This study was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education under Contract No. LC 90043001.

  2. Deborah Meier, "Choice Can Save Public Education," The Nation, 4 March 1991.

  3. Al Shanker, "Where We Stand: Convention Plots New Course — A Charter for Change," New York Times (paid advertisement), 10 July 1988, p. E-7.

  4. Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, "The 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, September 2003, p. 48.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Student progress should be monitored using various measures, not just standardized tests. If there is not major improvement in narrowing the achievement gap in most areas over a five-year period, the school should be "reconstituted."

  7. Leonard Fein et al., Reform Is a Verb: Notes on Reform and Reforming Jews (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1972), p. 152.


Joe Nathan, "A Response to Frederick Hess: Some Questions for Advocates of Public Education," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 442-445, 450.


JOE NATHAN is director of the Center for School Change, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (jnathan@hhh.umn.edu).


A Response to Frederick Hess: An Ongoing Conversation
by Ray Bacchetti

The increasing polarization of the public's views on public education serves us poorly; we need to revive the skill and will to engage in more thoughtful dialogue, Mr. Bacchetti points out.

WE DON'T look at the big issues of the principles and purposes of public schools often or carefully enough. Sadly, the political and philosophical conversation seems increasingly polarized. In Venn diagram terms, the two circles — labeled right/left, basics/constructivist, academic/child-centered, etc. — reveal at best a vanishingly thin region of overlap. When the true believers on either side look in the mirror, they see Dumbledore. Over their shoulders and gaining, they see Voldemort.

Frederick Hess' beefy rhetoric stakes out a position that reflects a more conservative world view than my own. In essence, he argues that the purposes of public education will be better served if we narrow the number of principles that define its publicness and expand the number of ways those principles can be implemented. In that expanded universe, religious schools, vouchers, for-profit ventures, and other alternatives would be welcome.

The principles advertised in Hess' title are woven through his essay, making it difficult to distinguish his main point from his subsidiary concerns. Here is what I take to be the core of his definition of what makes a school public. In addition to teaching skills and content, public schools should:

  • prepare students to be "productive members of the social order";

  • enable students to "become aware of their societal responsibilities," including the "principles, habits, and obligations of citizenship"; and

  • educate students to be "respectful of constitutional strictures," including laws, process, and individual rights.

In carrying out these functions, public school systems should also:

  • not "deny access to students for reasons unrelated to [a school's] educational focus"; and

  • "provide an appropriate placement for each student" in every community.

Asserting by implication that the meanings of his key terms are inherently obvious, Hess goes on to argue that the terms others might use to set forth other principles are not. For example, he observes that "diversity" and "tolerance" are "umbrella terms with multiple interpretations." Therefore, they lie outside his cluster of principles because, when we try to define them more precisely, "it becomes clear that we must privilege some values at the expense of others." If he believes that a similar privileging of certain values might color his own key terms, such as "obligations of citizenship," "productive members of the social order," "societal responsibilities," "individual rights," and the like, he gives no indication.

Hess seems to arrive at his position partly for affirmative reasons (e.g., an emphasis on academic learning) and partly because of a surprisingly bitter view of educators (some of whom he names, but most of whom he only characterizes). In his view, these educators

  • "explicitly promote a particular world view and endorse a particular social ethos";

  • "promote partisan attitudes toward American foreign policy, the propriety of affirmative action, or the morality of redistributive social policies";

  • teach students to "accept teen pregnancy or homosexuality as normal and morally unobjectionable";

  • attempt to "stamp out familial views and impress children with socially approved beliefs"; and

  • treat public institutions as their personal playthings.

To illustrate his more general points, Hess portrays the "meaningful questions" asked in the classrooms of the Coalition of Essential Schools as a herd of Trojan ponies surreptitiously unloading the teachers' agendas. It's not clear what "meaningful questions" might be in the classrooms he approves of, though readers might infer that they would be limited to the rational analysis of topics that arise from well-developed and authoritatively taught subject matter. There is nothing wrong with such questions, of course. But anyone who thinks that they — or the answers to them — would be value-free is likely to have slept through his or her undergraduate philosophy classes.

More to the point, however, a narrow and academic definition of such questions would exclude from the public school universe those who think students should also wrestle with forming habits of the heart as well as the mind, should learn to use critical inquiry to amend and expand values and understandings as well as to confirm them, and should go beyond "my country, right or wrong" to embrace the rest of Carl Schurz' famous phrase, "if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

I have spent a fair amount of time in schools of late, witnessing heroic efforts of underfinanced and overregulated teachers to enact both the academic preparation and the democracy-building ethos that our schools were meant to embody. If Hess is suggesting that generally left-leaning personal agendas have dominated public school instruction for a generation or more, then we should be able to see around us a widely shared value system that reflects those views. However, when I survey newspapers, polls, elections, and even school reform debates at national and local levels, I see instead an enormous variety of values and priorities. Some may find that diversity of views troubling. What troubles me is not that people disagree but that we seem increasingly incapable of working through our differences to embed public school policies and practices in a conception of the common good that can transcend political perspectives without disrespecting them.

The sort of public conversations about public education that would open minds to a critical look at new ideas would be, as I'm sure Hess would agree, tough to structure and to conduct. Where he and I are likely to disagree is on whether the topic of those conversations will ever be settled and, more important, whether it ever should be. Teaching skills and developing in each generation the social cohesion on which so much else depends will be easier (though never easy) to approach than will matters of values, educational philosophies, social goals, and civic priorities. Moreover, balancing the relative claims of the student, family, community, nation, and the wider world on how and what schools teach is a democratic journey, not a settled destination.

From the start, Hess acknowledges the powerful resonance of the concept of public education. What seems to make him impatient, even exasperated, is that the people who lead what he and some others pejoratively call "government-run schools" aren't listening to him. Not listening can be a stance or a reaction. Seeing it as a stance, I join him in his exasperation. The habit of "reflexively shrinking" from a consideration of alternatives hardens the democratic arteries. Seeing it as a reaction, I worry that world views (a term I prefer to "ideology") too often appear as righteous opposites, leaving all but the most robust listeners wondering what's the point.

Finding areas of overlap in our views under such conditions isn't easy. Developing the skills of measured and thoughtful dialogue needed to create such overlap is even harder. The challenge of doing so, however, demonstrates why a free nation needs public schools that are set up to make public decision making meaningful at the daily, close-to-home levels, as well as at higher levels. Such deliberative procedures force us to ask not only what we want our own children to learn but also what we want all children to learn. Children are, after all, collectively as well as individually the next generation, and the education we bequeath to them is communal as well as personal.

We need to talk and listen our way into more overlap in our political/philosophical Venn diagrams. Having that running conversation looms large in my definition of what makes the public schools public. Hess seems to argue that, through a few principles and a multitude of entities all claiming the mantle of public education, we can make the need for that conversation go away. I would argue instead that getting better at it should be our number-one priority.


Ray Bacchetti, "A Response to Frederick Hess: An Ongoing Conversation," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 446-447.


RAY BACCHETTI is scholar in residence, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, Calif.

A Response to Frederick Hess: Reimagining Public Education
by Evans Clinchy

To Mr. Clinchy, the paramount considerations in any proposal for reforming public education should be local control and equity. But it appears to him that Mr. Hess has other priorities.

I HEARTILY agree with Frederick Hess that we need to rethink and reimagine our antiquated American system of public education. But not for the reasons he sets forth.

I also agree with his broad definition of the purposes of public schooling: "that public schools are . . . defined by their commitment to preparing students to be productive members of the social order" (and therefore active citizens of a democratic society) who are able to think and use their minds well and are "aware of their societal responsibilities and respectful of constitutional strictures" (including an understanding of the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights); "that such schools cannot deny access to students for reasons unrelated to their educational focus" (i.e., no racially, ethnically, or economically segregated schools); "and that the system of public schools available in any community must provide an appropriate placement for each student" (all students and their parents must be offered the kind of schooling they believe is most suitable). But I do not agree that we should seek to create the kind of reimagined system Hess appears to be proposing.

Questions of Definition, Control, and Funding

Throughout most of the history of the U.S., a public school has been defined as a school created, operated, and largely paid for by the citizens of each community through a locally elected board of education. While the Constitution leaves the basic authority for education in the hands of the individual states, and even though such locally controlled schools have, over the past century, received increased funding from both state and federal sources, this tradition of local control has managed to endure more or less intact — at least until the past 25 or so years.

The continued importance of this tradition was underscored in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Rodriguez decision. The majority opinion put the matter this way:

In an era that has witnessed a consistent trend toward centralization of the functions of government, local sharing of responsibility for public education has survived. The merit of local control was recognized in both the majority and dissenting opinions in Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia. Mr. Justice Stewart stated there that "direct control over decisions vitally affecting the education of one's children is a need that is strongly felt in our society." The Chief Justice in his dissent agreed that local control is not only vital to continued public support of the schools, but it is of overriding importance from an educational standpoint as well.

The persistence of attachment to government at its lowest level where education is concerned reflects the depth of commitment of its supporters. In part local control means . . . the freedom to devote more money to the education of one's children. Equally important, however, is the opportunity it offers for participation in the decision-making process that determines how those local dollars will be spent. Each locality is free to tailor local programs to local needs. Pluralism also affords some opportunity for experimentation, innovation, and a healthy competition for educational excellence. An analogy to the Nation-State relationship in our federal system seems uniquely appropriate. Mr. Justice Brandeis identified as one of the peculiar strengths of our form of government each state's freedom to "serve as a laboratory; to try novel social and economic experiments." No area of social concern stands to profit more from a multiplicity of viewpoints and from a diversity of approaches than does public education.

Further, Justice William Brennan found in his dissent that "Here, there can be no doubt that education is inextricably linked to the right to participate in the electoral process and to the rights of free speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment."1

During the past quarter century, however, the "consistent trend toward centralization of the functions of government" has run rampant in the field of public schooling. In the name of public school "reform," the states have usurped local control by imposing uniform, authoritarian, "high," "rigorous," one-size-fits-all academic standards and punitive high-stakes standardized testing on all students, all schools, and all school systems.

The federal education establishment, through its No Child Left Behind Act, has carried this intrusive, antidemocratic curricular control and standardized testing program to ludicrous extremes, requiring the testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and insisting on annual progress in test scores with severe sanctions for schools that fail to show such progress. However, neither the federal government nor the states have provided the financial resources to pay for all this "reform" or to remedy the gross inequities that exist between those school systems that serve the wealthy and those that serve our poor and minority students and parents. I find these events distressing, but none of them appear to worry Hess very much.

If the powerful democratic tradition of local control is to be maintained and if we are to genuinely reimagine our public education system, we will need to do several things. First, we will have to abandon the authoritarian standards and high-stakes testing agenda that currently afflict our public schools and return to the citizens of our local communities the control over what is taught, how it will be taught, and who will teach it. State and federal interference should be limited to ensuring minimum competency in the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics.

Second, we will simultaneously need both state and federal governments to guarantee that all of the nation's public schools are fully and equitably funded and that the civil rights of all students and parents — but especially our poor and minority students and parents — are fully protected. Hess does not appear to recommend any of these policies.

The Threat of Vouchers and Privatization

We will also have to erect strong safeguards against the threat of vouchers and any further encroachment of the private corporate sector into the field of public schooling. Now that the Supreme Court has permitted the use of public funds to finance vouchers that can be used to pay tuition at nonpublic, including religious, schools, Hess appears to be saying that we should aim to create a system of public education similar to that of many European countries, where public funding is given directly to all nonpublic schools. Such a proposal would still violate both the First Amendment's separation of church and state and the democratic commitment to local public citizen control.

In addition, Hess proposes that we permit the private, for-profit sector to run both schools and school systems so long as those schools are monitored by some public body — despite the fact that the track record of Edison and other corporate EMOs (education management organizations) is educationally and economically dismal. Hess appears to believe that it is morally legitimate for private corporations to profit from the education of children, rather than being required to plow "profits" back into our chronically underfunded public schools. This thinking parallels the already-established view that it is somehow morally legitimate for corporate HMOs to make a profit out of caring for the sick, rather than being required to plow that money back into the health-care system. Neither of these policies is morally acceptable in any fair, just, and equitable system of democratic government.

A Truly Reimagined, Genuinely Democratic Public System of Diversity and Choice

Hess does raise an issue of fundamental importance when he points out that "there are many ways to provide legitimate public education." I assume that he means that there is no single kind of school — be it rigidly "traditional," wildly "progressive," or something in between — that could possibly serve the diverse educational beliefs of this nation's parents, the equally diverse professional philosophies of our public school educators, and most especially the enormously varied educational needs of our children and young people.

Strangely, however, Hess believes that many "prominent educational thinkers" (among others, he names Frank Smith, Susan Ohanian, Deborah Meier, and Alfie Kohn) have encouraged the public schools to promote "preferred social values" to the American public rather than advocating that all public schools limit themselves to teaching children "the essential skills and knowledge that make for productive citizens." He asserts that the "public schools should teach children . . . to respect our constitutional order and instruct them in the framework of rights and obligations that secure our democracy and protect our liberty." He argues this point as if this educational prescription were not itself an ideology — even if it is one that may be widely shared and one that in its main outlines is most certainly shared by his list of misguided thinkers.

Hess then goes on to advocate not just his own ideological prescription but the basic rule of what I would see as that truly reimagined public system we should be attempting to create. In order to encompass those diverse educational beliefs of parents and professional educators and to meet the varied educational needs of our children and young people, he says that we should "allow families to avail themselves of a range of schools with diverse perspectives, so long as each teaches respect for our democratic and liberal tradition." Thus we need that wide diversity of public schools — ranging from traditional to progressive — from which parents, teachers, administrators, and older students can choose the type of schooling they believe will most benefit each child and young person. As Hess puts it, such strictly public school choice would create "heightened family involvement" and produce "a shared sense of commitment" that would tend to make such "self-selected schools more participatory and democratic."

It is, I believe, the job of our local public school systems, assisted and encouraged by state and federal governments, to provide that diversity of options. But the basic control of what goes on in all of our public schools must always remain solely in the public domain and solidly anchored in the will of the citizens of our local communities.


  1. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, U.S. Supreme Court, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).


Evans Clinchy, "A Response to Frederick Hess: Reimagining Public Education," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 448-450.


EVANS CLINCHY is a senior consultant at the Institute for Responsive Education, Northeastern University, Boston. He is most recently the author of The Rights of All Our Children: A Plea for Action (Heinemann, 2002). The arguments presented here are drawn in part from a book in progress titled Rediscovering the World: The Evolutionary Foundation for a New System of American Public Education.

A Rejoinder from Frederick Hess: Debating Principles for Public Schooling in a New Century
by Frederick M. Hess

Mr. Hess considers the arguments of the four respondents to his original essay.

THIS IS A critical and timely discussion, and I'd like to thank the respondents for taking part. So long as ideological and pinched labels constrict the policy debate and unnecessarily preclude potentially effective approaches to schooling, our children and our nation will pay the price. There are a number of points of general agreement between the respondents and me, but there also seems to be significant confusion about the purpose of my original essay. In this short response, I will seek to highlight the points of apparent agreement and to clarify my argument.

Surprising Consensus

What I find most remarkable and exciting about the exchange is how much uncontested ground emerged from a conversation as sensitive and as heated as this one. The respondents seem to agree, or at least acquiesce by their conspicuous silence, on several significant points:

  • that it is necessary and useful to reconsider the essence of "public schooling" in an age marked by radical changes in how education is provided;

  • that a much broader set of school funding arrangements than has traditionally been employed can be consistent with a notion of public schooling;

  • that we have always made use of the for-profit sector in operating schools and serving students;

  • that a variety of forms of government oversight or regulation can be regarded as consistent with the precepts of "public schooling";

  • that the popular notion that public schools ought to promote a uniform general will is overdrawn and that public schools can legitimately embrace a variety of pedagogical, curricular, and normative perspectives; and

  • that it is legitimate for public schools, at least in some circumstances, to focus on serving a specialized population — as in the case of arts-themed magnet schools or charter schools that target at-risk students.

In looking at this list, one is struck by just how much common ground seems to exist and how much the conversation has evolved in the past two decades. Today, practitioners, policy makers, and scholars of varying sensibilities can find themselves advocating the same reforms as people they regard with grave distrust. We see this in the conversations about small schools, charter schooling, single-sex schooling, distance education, home schooling, and equity and adequacy in education. However, this evolving world has not influenced a conception of public schooling that is at once maddeningly ambiguous, ossified, and outdated. Rather than permit fruitful reforms to proceed on the strength of their goals and their demonstrated merit, some have sought to delegitimate particular proposals merely by asserting that they reside outside the bounds of "public schooling."

Arbitrary and Inconsistent Grounds for Exclusion

A sensible conception of public schooling does not require that we imagine there is just one permissible approach with regard to privatization, pedagogy, or the teaching of tolerance.

The grounds on which some approaches are deemed antithetical to "public schooling" are arbitrary and inconsistent. Critics will attack reforms as "anti-public education" for permitting the same practices that some "public schools" already engage in. For instance, Linda Nathan declares that "public school systems are open to everyone regardless of disability, wealth, status, race, or religion" and suggests that this provides a useful metric for gauging the publicness of reform proposals. I would ask Ms. Nathan to consider Joe Nathan's disconcerting question, "What is public about a suburban district in which the price of admission to the local public school is the ability to purchase a house for more than one million dollars?" Or Mr. Nathan's query, "What is public about an inner-city school with an admissions test that screens out all students with mental disabilities and more than 95% of students in the surrounding district?"

Contrary to Ms. Nathan's familiar claim about openness to all, public school systems are "open" only to families that can afford to purchase or rent property in the local district. Systems are routinely unable to provide an appropriate environment for some children with special needs, resulting in public districts paying to place these children in nondistrict facilities. More significantly, Ms. Nathan's focus on "school systems" is somewhat misleading, because her comparison is to individual private schools. The truth is that thousands of public magnet schools, governor's schools, and International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs reject applicants on the basis of aptitude or demonstrated performance. Many districts steer students with special needs into particular schools.

I do not mean to necessarily condone the actions of school districts that take such steps, nor do I suggest that such practices are unacceptable. I am merely pointing out that traditional public schools do engage in exclusionary behaviors, and yet Ms. Nathan would promulgate a dubious standard of publicness that thousands of conventional public schools would fail to meet.

The notion of "public schooling" is vital when it distinguishes something essential. Unfortunately, we have cast a broad but inconsistent net that relies on murky definitions, serves normative agendas, and is too often used to impugn unconventional reforms. The result is that proponents of such reforms come to view public schooling as a barrier to productive change and self-styled public school advocates as enemies.

Misconstruing the Argument

I'd like to congratulate Joe Nathan on his thoughtful illustration of the ways in which we might think creatively about how we can best fulfill the essential mission of public schooling. Unfortunately, I'm concerned that the other three respondents may have misconstrued the purpose of the exercise. Linda Nathan, Ray Bacchetti, and Evans Clinchy seem to imagine that I am advocating particular arrangements which they find objectionable — ranging from Edison-style management agreements to eliminating inquiry-driven education to promoting the repression of gay youths. While I understand that the respondents are used to a dialogue focused on advocating or opposing such measures, they have gotten my argument precisely backwards. I am not endorsing any of these measures, but rather I am advocating an end to the stale accusations that one particular point of view cannot legitimately claim to be consistent with our heritage of public education.

As I argued in the previous essay, a sensible conception of public schooling does not require that we imagine there is just one permissible approach with regard to privatization, pedagogy, or the teaching of tolerance. Many different arrangements may be consistent with our notions of public schooling. In other words, nothing I argue suggests that Edison is an exemplar, that inquiry-based learning is problematic, that schools ought not to teach tolerance, or that schools should be more selective about accepting students. I suggest only that such arrangements are not inconsistent with a sensible rendering of public schooling.

Acceptance Versus Endorsement

Rigorously considering the nature of public schooling frees us to have two distinct discussions. The first seeks to determine the bounds of what we ought to deem permissible under the banner of public schooling. The second concerns what we deem desirable.

What does this mean in practice? It means that we ought to debate these issues on their merits without mystical appeals. I am arguing that the parameters that determine what is consistent with the tenets of public schooling are much less bound to the institutional arrangements of the moment than the self-styled champions of public education suppose. Schools can be governed, managed, or operated in numerous ways while remaining faithful to our heritage of public schooling.

Of course, arguing that states can remain true to public schooling while outsourcing service contracts or permitting schools to be more supportive of familial religious views is not to maintain that communities should do these things. Rather, it is to say that these measures should be regarded as legitimate policy options. In a new century marked by the ready availability of information, enhanced mobility, new technologies, and a variety of innovative institutional arrangements, there is no reason to stifle promising developments or new institutional adaptations. In addition to being more consistent with our political and philosophical heritage, such an approach provides significant benefits by rendering debate about school reform more amenable to practical and evidentiary discussion.

Ray Bacchetti sees a world in which the Right and the Left in education are pulling further and further apart, leaving a shrinking middle. I am suggesting that we have exacerbated this split by permitting the notion of public schooling to become a rhetorical banner used to bolster partisan positions and to delegitimate opposing ideas. Both Bacchetti's right/academic/basics camp and his left/constructivist/child-centered camp can and should be recognized as proponents of public education. Acknowledging this reality and accepting that, for instance, "rightist" reforms like alternative teacher licensure and "leftist" reforms like licensure by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards can both be consistent with public schooling will damp down some of the more overwrought claims and create room for more tempered debate.

Unnecessary Absolutism

The respondents float a number of interesting ideas: from Evans Clinchy's contention that high-stakes accountability systems are "authoritarian" and his concerns about locally funded school districts to Ray Bacchetti's belief that schools should embrace constructivist pedagogy. Crucially, one can come down on either side of these debates without resorting to the claim that those who hold opposing views are enemies of public education. For instance, it is perfectly reasonable for Clinchy to assert that educational management organizations (EMOs) have produced a "track record [that] . . . is educationally and economically dismal." It's a judgment with which I would disagree, but it's a reasonable contention. I am suggesting, however, that it is far less constructive for him and his allies to declare that EMOs are not "morally acceptable in any fair, just, and equitable system of democratic government."

Why does the distinction between Clinchy's first statement and his second matter so? The first is susceptible to reasoned debate. We can provide contrasting goals, argue premises, consider evidence, and conduct an informed discussion about what we want schools to do and how to best accomplish those goals. The second course — with its dramatic rhetorical claims about one ethically permissible avenue — forestalls such debate and turns the conversation about school improvement into a cultural clash. This rhetorical device turns all those who oppose the prescriptions favored by the speaker — or, not infrequently, by organized professional associations — into enemies of public schooling.

Simple Safeguards

A particular point of confusion is Bacchetti's suspicion that I am trying to substitute some new, vague conception of "individual rights" or "societal responsibilities" in lieu of the old, problematic catch-all notions. In fact, the point of these phrases is not to provide a new set of "privileged values" but to provide some simple, constitutionally derived guidelines that ensure all public schools serve essential shared purposes.

For instance, while people of good will may reasonably disagree about whether tolerance requires teaching that teen pregnancy should not be stigmatized, it is incontestable that our laws should protect teenage mothers from physical or verbal harassment. All public schools have a minimal obligation to teach children to respect the political community and the protections it accords to each of its members. Beyond that threshold, however, schools can legitimately adopt a rainbow of perspectives on instructional or social issues without thereby being more or less "public."

I am suggesting that the vast majority of the American population can distinguish between the extensive body of matters on which citizens can reasonably disagree and those few issues (such as incitement to engage in violence, to violate civil rights, to seek to overturn the constitutional order, etc.) where the disagreement is between the political community and those who would violate our rights as citizens.

Danger of Overheated Rhetoric

There is a real danger to the rhetorical strategy of branding objectionable reforms as de facto "assaults on public schooling." This device is fruitless and divisive. Perhaps more forebodingly, it excommunicates many who honor public education because they fail to endorse the "right kind" of public schooling. Parents and policy makers who think that it's okay for schools to hire unlicensed teachers or who don't want to raise taxes to spend more on schooling are not engaged in a conspiracy to destroy public education. Berating them as if they are stifles more sensible discourse about the merits of these proposals while teaching reformers to see themselves as enemies of traditional educators.

If we're not careful, we may well wake up one day to find that the self-proclaimed champions of public schooling have created a nation in which half of the population is deemed hostile to public education. Formulating a definition of public schooling that is consistent and protects the sacrosanct core of the mission, yet does not make overbroad or ambiguous claims, will yield a sturdier system of public education even as it provides an umbrella under which those with competing beliefs can come together and civilly debate how to best serve our nation's children. And that is in all our interests.


Frederick M. Hess, "A Rejoinder from Frederick Hess: Debating Principles for Public Schooling in a New Century," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 85, No. 6, February 2004, pp. 451-454.


Frederick M. Hess, a former high school social studies teacher, is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC. His most recent book Common Sense School Reform, was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan. He is the editor, along with Chester E. Finn Jr., of Leaving No Child Behind?: Options for Kids in Failing Schools.



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