Public education

From Academic Kids

Public education is schooling provided by the government, and paid for by taxes. Public education emerged in the early 19th century as a tool of industrialisation and still uses mass production techniques to achieve its ends. Proponents of public education assert it to be necessary because of the need in modern society for people who are capable of reading, writing, and doing basic mathematics. However, some libertarians argue that education is best left to the private sector; in addition, advocates of alternative forms of education such as unschooling argue that these same skills can be achieved without subjecting children to state-run compulsory schooling. In most industrialized countries, these views are distinctly in the minority.



Public education is generally available to all. In most countries, it is compulsory for children to attend up to a certain age. Public education can be contrasted with private schooling, in which schools are run independently and charge students tuition fees. In the US, schools run by the states at the expense of the taxpayers and not charging tuition are called public schools, but in other English-speaking countries that term has quite a different meaning. In some poor countries, this compulsion is sometimes not enforced well because in those countries, children are important laborers who cannot be left to school to secure enough income. This phenomenon also occurs in some poor districts in wealthy countries, though to a lesser degree.

National Public School Systems

United States Public School

In the United States, public education has traditionally been under the control of individual states. This is different from many other countries where the public education system has been highly centralized at the national level (France, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan). Local school districts, with elected school boards administer the public primary and secondary schools within a metropolitan area, city, town or rural area. Within the United States in particular, the expanding role of the federal government in public education is often a subject of heated debate.

This control involves the following:

  1. compulsory tax funding,
  2. compulsory student attendance,
  3. mass-produced textbooks,
  4. state-controlled teacher certification,
  5. state-mandated trade union membership, and
  6. state-enforced, monopoly-granting accreditation to educational institutions.


The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a mechanism for funding public education in the United States. Until at least the 1840s, however, most schools continued to be privately owned and operated[1] (

Coeducation and the emergence of modern high schools; the expansion of compulsory education. The growth of extracurricular activities (1890s-1950s). The principle of equalization becomes a standard to achieve.

The United States Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was a hallmark in education. It forced previously segregated schools to integrate, and led to the rise of desegregation busing across the country.


A number of issues swirl around the problems of public education but these concerns dominate conversations regarding school finance,at least in the state of California:

  • private and public good of education
    • Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations discusses, at length, the importance of an educated populace. Studies show comparisons of the cost of one year of school to the cost of one year of prison demonstrating that prison is far more costly. Though the links between education and prisons are debatable evidence suggests a strong correlation between lack of education and likelihood of committing a crime and being incarcerated. States with low-dropout rates have a lower rate of incarceration.
    • The public good comes into question as well when considering how school districts are zoned granting and limiting access to students based on their physical and financial positions in the community. School district zoning battles are often ugly affairs of race and class.
  • autonomy
    • Responding to criticisms of failures of management because of highly centralized structures, site-based management has come to the fore as a way to improve academic performance with localized solutions.
  • fiscal federalism
    • Funding is multi-layered. The federal, state and local tax franchise boards balance the needs of the community both macro and micro. Though, recently, in the US as the federal government reduces support to States, states are no longer able to meet their obligations to schools and so the schools are forced into painful fiscal adjustments as promised moneys never arrive.
  • special needs funding
  • efficiency
  • equal opportunity (Title IX, No Child Left Behind, Brown v. Board of Education, Proposition 13)

School vouchers

Since 1873, Maine has financed the education of thousands of kindergarten through 12th grade students in private schools[2] ( This type of system is known as a school voucher program.

In recent years, politicians have criticized the public education system, arguing that it has failed in some areas (particularly inner-cities). School performance is generally measured by student performance on standardized tests, typically administered by the state. One major problem facing the modern education system is how to fix schools that consistently "underperform" - have large numbers of students who score poorly on the test.

One solution advocated primarily by the US Republican Party is the use of school vouchers. Students in districts with underperforming schools would be given money by the government to attend the school of their choice. Proponents argue that this would put the public schools in competition with private ones, and that competition would result in better choices for the public. Critics argue that this unnecessarily saps much-needed money out of the public school system without giving the student enough money to attend private schools (which generally cost considerably more than the vouchers provide), as well as violating the separation of church and state, as many private schools (though not all) are run by religious denominations. Another, perhaps more serious criticism is that private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to accept any student who comes through their doors.

Alternative/Charter schools

Also in recent years, there has been a proliferation in alternative schools. Most prominent of these has been the movement towards charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools which are run independently of the local school district and tend to have less bureaucracy. Additionally, charter schools can have a "theme": some specialize in teaching mathematics and science, others in teaching students who are considered "at-risk." A recent report showed that charter school students' performance on standardized tests was below regular public schools students' scores.

Bilingual education

Bilingual education, the teaching of students in more than one language, has become a contentious topic in recent decades. See bilingual education for main article.

Proposed abolition

The Alliance for the Separation of School & State and various Libertarian groups have proposed abolishing public education. In 1963, Nathaniel Branden wrote an essay, Common Fallacies About Capitalism, which devoted a section to excoriating public education. Branden compared education to shoes, arguing that private enterprise is more efficient at providing goods and services than the government. Branden's essay was published in Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal[3] (

Such proposals face considerable barriers, as many state constitutions mandate public funding of education. For instance, Article VIII of the Virginia Constitution requires the legislature to "provide for a system of free public elementary and secondary schools for all children of school age throughout the Commonwealth"[4] (

See also



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