‘Public’ And ‘Private’ Should Be Handled With Care - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Tom Hutton

Tom Hutton is an independent education consultant, a former executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission, and the interim executive director of the Education Law Association, a national professional association of attorneys, professors, and administrators focused on the intersection of the law with P-20 educational institutions — public and private.

Michael Mohr’s call for us on June 1 (“Stop Misusing The Words ‘Public’ And ‘Private’”) to rethink our use of the terms “public” and “private” — for example by substituting the adjective “government” for “public” when describing institutions — warrants some caution and gentle pushback.

As a benign reminder of the importance of non-governmental actors in solving social problems, the point is well taken. Leveraging the private and nonprofit sectors in pursuit of community objectives can work, especially when private incentives are carefully harnessed for public ends and when the pace of social change and challenges require responses more sophisticated and nimble than many public entities currently are organized and staffed to provide.

But the unintended — and sometimes intended — consequences of our word choices to describe our institutions can have a darker side.

Take the 2018 controversy over the Trump administration’s attempt to rename the U.S. Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. The proposed change to “Bureau of Consumer Finance Protection” merely moved one word. But to critics, the new name was less consumer-friendly and more impersonal and bureaucratic-sounding, which to them comported entirely with the administration’s all-out efforts to gut the agency’s commitment to vulnerable consumers.

Words matter (from aboblist.com), now more than ever. Flickr: airpix

Innocuous taxonomy has more clearly been weaponized in the field of education. The term “government schools” has been applied to public schools by adherents of economic conceptions of education, from economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s down to today’s constellation of focus group-informed conservative think tanks and news sources, all the way to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. This rhetorical flourish represents an attempt to reframe education policy debates on questions like privatization.

Notions Of Destiny

Not unlike rebranding the CFPB, the re-labeling of the public school reduces what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called “at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny” to a mere bureaucracy.

The term connotes soulless inertia, inflexibility, paperwork. It divests public schools of their central role in U.S. history as agents of republican values and collective progress and, perhaps not coincidentally, subtly undermines the importance of a commensurate investment of resources — and maybe the very notion of common destiny itself.

Here in Hawaii, our distinct educational history has blessed these islands with many outstanding private schools, some of which contribute purposefully and powerfully to the public good, just as Mr. Mohr extols. But here’s a harsh reality check: these schools never will substitute for excellence in public education. The legacy of Hawaii’s history for our heroic but struggling public school system still is a millstone around the neck of any conceivable quest for prosperity and justice in a 21st century Hawaii.

In recent years, sensitivity over the lines between public and private also played out in Hawaii’s debate over the failed 2014 constitutional amendment to expand early learning opportunities for Hawaii’s children. And those lines are especially blurred, here and in the rest of the U.S., when it comes to charter schools.

As a legal matter, some courts and regulatory bodies nationally have grappled with whether charter schools are “public” as defined in education statutes or actually are private entities for some purposes. For example, when teachers try to unionize a charter school on the mainland (where unlike in Hawaii the school usually is a 501(c)(3) with non-unionized employees), is the school a private entity that falls under the National Labor Relations Act or a public entity that falls under state law on public employee collective bargaining?

Charter school defense lawyers sometimes decide that their strongest legal argument is to assert their client’s private status. But in doing so, they risk undercutting the charter movement’s moral high ground by making the “public school” designation one of expediency, to be invoked when useful but readily discarded when inconvenient.

The same questions play out in other corners of the policy arena. Charter advocates frequently correct those who distinguish between “public” and “charter” schools, noting that under our laws charter schools form a subset of our public schools. The insistence on the term “public charter schools” is especially intense during debates over support and resources.

These advocates correctly discern that failure to recognize our charter schools as public schools leads to the “Afterthought Syndrome” among policy-makers, including stark inequities like failing to invest in charter facilities — to say nothing of public misconceptions like beliefs that charter schools are allowed to select their students or charge tuition.

And yet when it comes to public accountability and transparency — and especially when it comes to recognizing the responsibility charter schools have to our larger public education system — some charter advocates all too often retreat into their “autonomy” and “school choice” caves, sounding unapologetically like private actors providing private goods. Across the mainland and here in Hawaii, what we understand it means to be public and to be private has serious consequences for school children.

What we understand it means to be public and to be private has serious consequences for school children.

None of this is to discount the power of non-public entities, educational or otherwise, to advance public ends. Nor is it to suggest that public bodies are the sole, or even best, means to those ends.

But although insufficient, institutions we traditionally understand as public are indispensable. They are of the people, by the people, and for the people, in a way no other organization, however capable and civic-minded, is truly “public.”

Mr. Mohr certainly is right about this much: words do matter. At a time when the terrifying consequences of neglected, poorly led, compromised, and deliberately marginalized public institutions are being exposed daily by challenges of a magnitude only vibrant public institutions can ever possibly hope to address, words matter more than ever.

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About the Author

Tom Hutton

Tom Hutton is an independent education consultant, a former executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission, and the interim executive director of the Education Law Association, a national professional association of attorneys, professors, and administrators focused on the intersection of the law with P-20 educational institutions — public and private.

Latest Comments (0)

Tom Hutton talks in such broad philosophical terms about charter schools without giving examples that his commentary is nearly meaningless to the layperson.  He doesn't even say whether he prefers the term "charter schools" or "public charter schools" -- or something else.

sleepingdog · 2 years ago

Public schools are financed by tax revenue, and Charter and religious schools are subsidized with tax breaks, which means both are supported by tax payers. This fact merges the words, public and private.There is a long history of religious schools and privately owned secondary education in the US, even though there has been the democratic ideal of the opportunity of a free education to all.Charter schools really took off in the Reagan era of privatization and defunding gov. institutions.Today, the higher quality of a private education is being segregated because only the wealthy can afford it. This increases the burden on public schools and the perception of not being on par with privately funded education, which becomes a self-fulfilling loop.I see the problem of what is taught in school today, may not be relevant to the skills needed in the geographical future unique to Hawaii.Thinking about education is a great collective exercise, because children are the future. 

Joseppi · 2 years ago

I can name a few things enacted besides Trump's shenanigans that are simply too ironic to be funny.For example:Patient Protection and Affordable Care ActProtection? nopeAffordable? nopeAs for Hawaii schools, the great "Hawaiian" President Obama went to Punahou. Nuff said.I recall a time when a study showed 50% of public school teachers on Oahu sent their kids to private schools. Has anything changed?

onolicious · 2 years ago

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