The Myth of "Public" Schools

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 6 2014 10:24 AM

The Myth of "Public" Schools

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Students sit outside a classroom at Edward Livingston High School on May 29, 2008, in New Orleans.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This disturbing article about a rich neighborhood of Baton Rouge, La., that wants to secede so it won't have to share school funding with poorer neighborhoods reminds me of one of my great frustrations with the K-12 education policy debate—the terminology of "public schools."

The way the word is used a school is "public" if it is owned by a government entity and thus part of the public sector. But a public school is by no means a school that's open to the public in the sense that anyone can go there. Here in the District of Columbia anyone who wants to wander into a public park is free to do so (that's what makes it public) but to send your kid to a good "public" elementary school in Ward 3 you have to live there. And thanks to exclusionary zoning, in practice if you want to live in Ward 3 you have to be rich. It wouldn't be legal to respond to the very high price of land in the area by building homes on small lots, or building tall buildings full of small affordable apartments.

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Since D.C. doesn't have Louisiana's political culture, Ward 3 generally doesn't have a problem with its tax dollars subsidizing the schools in Wards 5, 7, and 8, but if you proposed randomly assigning students to schools to produce integrated instructional environments, you'd have an epic battle on your hands.

In D.C. at least, charter schools—unlike "public" schools—have to admit (or not admit) students on an equal basis regardless of which neighborhood they live in.

But ultimately this is a housing policy problem masquerading as an education policy one. Normal people are mostly going to want their kids to go to a conveniently located school in or near their neighborhood. That's just a question of practicality. But when you allow the zoning code to become a tool of economic exclusion, that turns neighborhood schooling into a system of exclusion.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.