Opinion: CJ Opinion

Focusing on the government link to traditional district schools

Most of us call them “public” schools. Corey DeAngelis prefers a different label.

“There’s a couple of reasons as to why I think we should call them government schools,” said DeAngelis during the closing session of Classical Liberals in the Carolinas’ recent annual conference. “One is that it provides clarity between charter schools and traditional public schools. Charter schools are defined as public schools, but they’re not government-run.”

A leading advocate of charter schools and other forms of parental school choice, DeAngelis is national director of research at the American Federation for Children. He holds a professional interest in offering clear distinctions between schools of choice and traditional district schools.

But there’s another major reason to avoid using the word “public,” in DeAngelis’ view.

“The traditional government schools are not open to the public,” he said during the Oct. 16 presentation in Shelby. “It’s not like a public park, where you can walk by and use it.”

In contrast, families face legal hurdles when trying to get their children enrolled in particular government-run schools, DeAngelis said. “In Texas, if you’re not on the right side of the boundary, … they’ll charge you tuition to attend these so-called public schools. It’s not even free at the point of entry.”

“They’re not public goods in the economic sense of the term,” he added. “They’re rivalrous and excludable.” A seat in a government school classroom is “rivalrous” since only one student can sit in it at one time. It’s “excludable” since there’s limited access to spots in a particular school.

DeAngelis took more shots at the “public” label for government-run schools. “They’re not accountable to the public in a lot of ways,” he said. “We’ve seen this with the school board fights recently. Everybody has seen the pushback that parents have been providing in school board meetings all across the nation.”

“It’s gotten to a point where you have the National School Boards Association actually trying to label parents as domestic terrorists, even when they’re not being violent,” DeAngelis said.

The U.S. Justice Department’s willingness to investigate complaints about angry parents strikes DeAngelis as “absolutely horrendous.” “This seems like a way to bully families into submission for voicing their concerns about the curriculum and the classroom,” he said. “That’s what it really seems to be. That’s why I say they’re not really accountable to the public.”

Parents’ complaints represent “that democratic accountability that everybody has been talking about for years,” DeAngelis said. “The whole argument for the public school system is that they’re accountable because of school boards. You have democratically elected school boards. They listen to you. We all get together, and we get along, and we figure out the best solution for all kids.”

“That’s the argument, right? We’re seeing that doesn’t really play out all that well in practice.”

The only true accountability, in DeAngelis’ view, is “true bottom-up accountability.” “Allow families to vote with their feet.”

DeAngelis offered an analogy. “Just imagine if we all had to fight with one another about the one-size-fits-all set of groceries we all received each week,” he said. “You’d have the vegan lobby coming in and saying ‘You can’t have meat.’ You’d have the meat-eaters lobby coming in. We would all get a product that a lot of us aren’t happy with, and it would be extremely costly.”

“We’re seeing that same kind of problem with the public school system,” DeAngelis added. “Why should we even have to fight about these things in the first place? We should just be able to go to the schools or education providers that best meet our needs.”

If traditional district schools aren’t “public” in the way that other goods are “public,” they certainly fit the label of “government schools.” “They’re run by the government — directly operated by local, federal, and state governments,” DeAngelis said. “They are funded by the government — by the taxpayer.”

“They’re operated by the government,” he added. “They’re regulated by the government. They’re compelled by the government. They’re assigned by the government. They are government schools.”

Some people bristle when DeAngelis uses his alternative label. He offers a quick response.

“My question to you is: Why does that make you upset?” DeAngelis said. “Is it because you understand that government sucks essentially in everything else it does, too? Maybe you should think about why it makes you upset more than getting mad at me for labeling them as government-run schools when they are, in fact, run by the government.”

It seems unlikely that the phrase “public school” will disappear any time soon. Yet fruitful discourse about those schools could improve if more people follow DeAngelis’ line of thinking. When we recognize some schools as “government schools,” it’s easier to consider alternative options.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.