The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Drawing a Line on Public School Interest" by The Detroit News, 9/5/96.

Original Title:
School Choice and The Public Interest
by Barry McGhan

Proponents of privatizing public education often speak of the public schools as a "monopoly." For example, Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy used that term in a recent essay in The Detroit News ("Tuition Tax Credits The Next School Reform", 8/19/96). He criticizes the Michigan Constitution for requiring parents who send their children to private schools to pay twice for schooling. He decries the fact that such parents get "hardly a nickel back on the taxes they pay to support a system they don't even patronize."

Such a view is certainly confused, if not downright foolish.

The dictionary defines "monopoly" as the "exclusive possession or control" of something. In Michigan, control of public education is in the hands of several hundred independent local school districts. Those districts are in the hands of school boards elected by the public. Parents are free to choose which districts to live in.

Many public school systems offer special magnet schools that draw students from all over the system. Districts also occasionally allow students from one neighborhood to attend schools in other neighborhoods in the same district. And, students have long been allowed to pay tuition to attend schools in other districts. Other choices have been recently added to the mix by state government, through cross-district enrollment and charter school legislation.

In addition, private schools of all kinds flourish throughout the state. Further, parents are even allowed to school their children at home if they wish. To apply the term "monopoly" to these conditions is to stretch the meaning of the term beyond all reasonable limits. It's just plain silly.

A much more serious issue is raised by Mr. Reed's suggestion that parents who elect to use private schools are therefore entitled to some kind of financial rebate for their expenses. This issue must be decided by determining where to draw the line between private and public interests.

An illustration from another field may be helpful. Suppose that a man chooses to travel from one place to another using only surface transportation (cars, trains, boats, etc.). Is he entitled to a rebate on the county taxes he pays that go to airport construction? Should he get a federal tax credit for the costs of enforcing regulations governing air travel? In general, we can ask, "Is any taxpaying citizen entitled to a rebate for a public service or benefit from which he or she elects to get no direct advantage?"

When the answer to this question is "no," we have identified an area where the public interest outweighs private interests. It is on this point that the arguments of those who support various means of transferring public money to private schools are fatally flawed. Such proposals treat education as only a private good. But, if it is in the public interest to support education for all the children of Michigan, then all citizens have a responsibility to sustain that goal--regardless of what they may choose to do in their private lives.

What we need to do is continue looking for ways to improve public education through avenues that remain in the public interest. For example:

  • By creating more public magnet schools and charter schools;

  • By facilitating cross-boundary enrollment with public transportation subsidies;
  • By relieving individual public schools of burdensome state and local regulations;
  • By giving schools at all levels more latitude to drop students who aren't ready to learn;
  • By making it easier for schools to fire incompetent teachers;
  • By creating a reporting system that provides parents with information about school quality which they can use to make choices for their children.

All of the foregoing suggestions will improve public education. Most of them cost very little. None of them take money intended to support the public interest and convert it to private purposes.


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