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Public education is education mandated for or offered to the children of the general public by the government, whether national, regional, or local, provided by an institution of civil government, and paid for, in whole or in part, by taxes. The term is generally applied to basic education, K -12 education or primary and secondary education: it is rarely, if ever, applied to post-secondary education, advanced education, or universities, colleges, or technical schools.

Public education is inclusive, both in its treatment of students and in that enfranchisement for the government of public education is as broad as for government generally. Public education is often organized and operated to be a deliberate model of the civil community in which it functions.

Public education may be provided by a national or regional government (province, state, territory, etc.), or it may be provided by a local government. Where public education is provided by the state or a regional government, it is often referred to as "state education", a term which is rarely used when public education is provided by a local government.

Public education is typically provided to groups of students (classrooms; the "one-to-many" model of delivery), with a number of groups of students clustered in a school. However, the term "public education" is not synonymous with "public schooling". Public education can be provided in-home, employing visiting teachers, supervising teachers, and/or distance learning. It can also be provided in non-school, non-home settings, such as shopping mall space.

The term "public education" is not synonymous with the term "publicly funded education". Government may make a public policy decision that it wants to have some financial resources distributed in support of, and it may want to have some control over, the provision of education which is not public education. Grants-in-aid of private schools, and voucher systems all provide examples of publicly funded education which is not public education. Conversely, a public school (including ones run by school districts) may rely heavily on non-public funding (such as high fees or private donations) but still be considered public by virtue of public ownership and control.

Public education often involves the following:

  1. compulsory student attendance (until a certain age or standard is achieved);
  2. certification of teachers and curricula, either by the government or by a teachers' organization;
  3. testing and standards provided by government.

The United Kingdom provides an anomalous use of the term "public school". In England the term "public school" refers to an elite of privately funded independent schools which had their origins in medieval schools funded by charity to provide education for the poor. (The anomaly points to one of the fundamentals of public education, which is inclusion: in times past the commitment to inclusion was demonstrated by reaching out through charity.)


Public education is generally available to all. In most countries, it is compulsory for children to attend school up to a certain age, but the option of attending private school is open to many. In the case of private schooling, schools operate independently of the state and generally defray their costs (or even make a profit) by charging students tuition fees. The funding for public schools, on the other hand, is provided by tax revenues, so that even individuals who do not attend school (or whose dependents do not attend school) help to ensure that society is educated. In poverty stricken societies, authorities are often lax on compulsory school attendance because the children there are valuable laborers. It is these same children whose income-securing labor cannot be forfeited to allow for school attendance.

In some countries, such as Germany, private associations or churches can operate schools according to their own principles, as long as they comply with certain state requirements. When these specific requirements are met, especially in the area of the school curriculum, the schools will qualify to receive state funding. They are then treated financially and for accreditation purposes as part of the public education system, even though they make decisions about hiring and school policy (not hiring atheists, for example), which the state might not make itself.

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 or states, these views are distinctly in the minority.

National public school systems

Scottish education

Main article: Education in Scotland

The Church of Scotland was established in 1560, during the Protestant Reformation period as the official state religion in Scotland, and in the following year it set out to provide a school in every parish controlled by the local kirk-session, with education to be provided free to the poor, and the expectation that church pressure would ensure that all children took part. In 1633 the Parliament of Scotland introduced local taxation to fund this provision. Schooling was not free, but the tax support kept fees low, and the church and charity funded poorer students. This had considerable success, but by the late 18th century the physical extent of some parishes and population growth in others led to an increasing role for "adventure schools" funded from fees and for schools funded by religious charities, initially Protestant and later Roman Catholic.

In 1872 education for all children aged 5 to 13 was made compulsory with "public schools" (in the Scots meaning of schools for the general public) under local school boards. The leaving age was raised to 14 in 1883, and a Leaving Certificate Examination was introduced in 1888 to set national standards for secondary education. School fees were ended in 1890. The Scottish Education Department ran the system centrally, with local authorities running the schools with considerable autonomy. In 1999, following devolution from the Parliament of the United Kingdom to the new Scottish Parliament, central organisation of education was taken over by departments of the Scottish Executive, with running the schools coming under unitary authority districts.

United States public schools

In the United States, all powers which are not assigned to the federal state by the U.S. Constitution are reserved to the individual states. Since the federal Constitution does not mention education, and the U.S. Supreme Court has held conclusively there is no federal Constitutional right to an education, public education has always been under the general control of the individual states. The steadily expanding role of the federal government in public education since the late nineteenth century has recently become a subject of heated debate, as many states (and more than a few Senators and members of Congress) perceive the U.S. Government to be overstepping its constitutional bounds.

The systemic breadth required to implement statewide public education is such that most states employ a three-tiered model of decentralisation that parallels the general decentralisation model of state/county/township. To wit, there is usually a state superintendent of schools, who shuttles back and forth between the state department of education, the state board of education, and the state government itself. Statewide education policies are then regionally decentralised to intermediate school districts, or their equivalents by other names. These are invariably associated with counties, or with groups of counties; but the boundaries are not necessarily the same as the county boundaries. The intermediate school district is constituted of however many local school districts are assigned to its jurisdiction.

For example, the Washtenaw Intermediate School District is one of Michigan's 57 regional intermediate school districts, created in 1962 as part of a reform to Michigan's public school system. (The state has 83 counties.) It is constituted of the Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Lincoln, Manchester, Milan, Saline, Whitmore Lake, Willow Run, and Ypsilanti public school districts. Although centred on Washtenaw County, hence the name, it does not include all of Washtenaw County in its boundaries. Small to noticeable parts of Washtenaw County are served by local school districts that are part of the intermediate school districts based on the neighbouring or nearby counties of Wayne, Oakland, Livingston, Ingham, Jackson, and Lenawee. Likewise, local school districts based in Washtenaw County include parts of neighbouring Lenawee, Jackson, Livingston, Wayne, and Monroe counties. Fully two-thirds of the Milan Area Schools district is actually located in Monroe County, but at the time the district was established, all of its schools were in Washtenaw County.

In most states, these county and regional "intermediate" school districts and controlling boards merely implement state education policy at the local level, and provide a channel through which the local districts communicate upward to the state board of education, state superintendent, and department of education.

Local school districts are managed by local school boards, which own and operate the public primary and secondary schools within their boundaries. They typically have no authority over private or parochial (religiously-affiliated) schools, or over home-schooling. Michigan and Iowa, however, limit home schooling to the parents of the children, and require the parents to be certified teachers. In California, where - as in most states - the licensing of teachers is limited to the public schools, teachers are not "certified"; they are "credentialed."


The first American public school was authorized on January 2,1643 by the Town of Dedham in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — nearly 150 years before the establishment of the United States.

The Regents of the University of the State of New York was established on 1 May 1784. The first accrediting agency in the United States, it is partly a collective of public and private schools, libraries, museums, etc.; and it includes as its most important organ the New York State Department of Education.

After the Revolution, the U.S. began to stress importance on education, focusing on elementary (K-8th grade) education. Schools were publicly supplied, however not free. Until the 1830s, public mass education remained a social issue that still required reform. Education reformers such as Horace Mann, helped jump start the common school movement. In 1837, Mann became the first Secretary of the Board of Education for Massachusetts. Mann was at the forefront in promoting the institution of common schools. His influence on education in Massachusetts soon spread to the U.S. as a whole. By 1870, all states provided free elementary schooling.

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].

The Michigan Legislature established the Michigan State Normal School in 1849, the first teacher-training institution west of Albany, New York, and only the sixth in the nation. Elevated to collegiate status within a few years, the Michigan State Normal College became Eastern Michigan College in 1956, and Eastern Michigan University in 1959. Founded as a co-educational institution, it was the first institution of higher learning to serve both men and women in Michigan, and one of the first in the nation.

Coeducation and the emergence of modern high schools; the expansion of compulsory education. The growth of extracurricular activities (1850s-1950s). The principle of equality in education, generally and especially as between the sexes, becomes a standard to achieve.

Separate Roman Catholic and Jewish schools come to be established in the mid-nineteenth century, first in New York City and later across the country. This was in response to the overly anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish positions presented by most textbooks used in public schools throughout the nation, in the interest of promoting Protestant hegemony throughout the United States.

The United States Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was a hallmark in American education law. It overturned the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson which had found that public schools segregated by race were permissible so long as both systems were "equal." The schools that were racially segregated before 1954 were still racially segregated afterward, however. The schools were all part of the same local school system instead of separate districts, and the psychological effect of the decision upon the public was ultimately much more important than the lack of any immediate, real effect. Most schools in America were not segregated at the time, and most of those that had been gradually became as desegrated as they could get, given the overall composition of the community. Those public schools that aggressively refused to desegregate into the 1970s were forced to do so by means of desegregation busing in the affected parts of the country.

Congress finally passed the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944. As a result, many veterans of the Armed Services attended undergraduate and graduate school after World War II who previously could not have afforded to do so. This was the first step in a broad social equalisation of American higher education and, through that, of American business management and the elite professions of law and medicine.

The State of California implemented a comprehensive "Master Plan" for higher education in 1959, which was initially successful in helping to provide higher education to as many Californians as were qualified and wanted to pursue it. It was seriously undermined in over the next 20 years, however, by a number of factors. First, in the sixty years since the end of World War II, California's population has more than quintupled, but the infrastructure of the state — including its educational system — did not grow proportionately to the rise in population to adequately service the needs of the state (and the infrastructure is still trailing markedly behind the rest of the nation as California enters the twenty-first century). Second, the California State College system transforming itself into the California State University, which was never anticipated by the institutional stratification components of the Master Plan. Third, the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 severely, and negatively, impacted the funding of all public education in the state, including public colleges and universities. As a consequence of these three principle factors, and other less important ones, the California Master Plan is largely regarded now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as a well-intended idea that ultimately failed because its framers neglected to realize that all things change over time - whereas the Master Plan implicitly presumed that change would not occur.

In 1964, broad access to higher education was further guaranteed by the creation of Title IV Federal Financial Aid Programs. Many state governments also created their own programmes.

The Department of Health, Education and Welfare was reorganised under the Carter administration as the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. The new federal Education Department began operation in 1980.


A number of issues swirl around the problems of public education but these concerns dominate conversations regarding school finance:

  • 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 set their boundaries, granting and limiting access to students based on their physical and financial positions in the community. Debates over the borders of school districts frequently involve issues 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.
  • Concept of fiscal federalism
    • Funding is multi-layered. While it is generally the local tax base which is responsible for supporting the schools, a certain amount of funding is also passed on from the state and federal levels. Recently, as the federal government reduces support for education the schools are forced into painful fiscal adjustments as promised moneys never arrive.
  • The funding of programs for students with special mental or physical needs and the extent of access, inclusion, and opportunity provided to such students.
  • 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 by Milton Friedman and advocated politically by the United States 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. In addition, a recent publication by the United States Department of Education has admitted that the average cost of public education per pupil is slightly more than double the cost per pupil of a private education, even though public schools have more students per teacher. Thus, there was no economy of scale as the per pupil cost should theoretically decline the more students there are per teacher.

Milton Friedman has argued that this is the result of public schools having no accountability to the market, and subsequently no accountability to parents or students. This lack of accountability, he believes, not only contributes to an inefficient use of resources and taxpayer dollars, but a poor education that does not fulfill the needs of students and parents. The vouchers would offer choice to parents and students if a public school did not provide them with the quality education they desired, as the voucher could be used at other public or private schools. Schools that lose students lose money, and schools that gain students gain money, thus providing a strong incentive to become efficient and accountable. Friedman does not deny that some schools will be hurt or close as a result, but he argues that it is necessary to eliminate the deadweight from the school system to bring efficiency and accountability back to education. Friedman and supporters of the voucher system believe that the market accountability will create positive results that can be emulated by even the worst public schools.

Opponents of the voucher system believe this will sap money from public schools, potentially destroying them. Another criticism is that private schools, unlike public schools, are not required to accept any student who comes through their doors. Furthermore, the use of tax-supported vouchers to support private schools amounts to a government subsidy for those schools. The state, unlike in the case of public schools, has far less control over the curriculum and operation, including employment policies of these private schools. Because of this, critics of the voucher scheme argue that it would violate both the principle of "no taxation without representation" as unlike a public school board, the trustees of private schools are not elected by the populace. In addition, some critics argue it would violate the separation of church and state (vouchers would help fund schools with religious curricula or that may hire and fire based on criteria such as remarriage after divorce.) Others note that is a broad reading of the constitution.

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 public schools (both owned publicly and publicly funded), which are run independently of the local school district and tend to have less bureaucracy, with mixed results on the students' performance on standardized tests. Additionally, charter schools can have a "theme": some specialize in teaching mathematics and science, others in teaching students who are considered "at-risk."

Bilingual education

Bilingual education, the teaching of students in two languages, 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]. Paleoconservatives argue that modern national public education systems serve as ideological enforcement mechanisms in a managerial state.

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

  • Free education
  • List of education articles by country


External links

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