EDUCATION: More than job-training

What Are Public Schools For?

As politicians scramble over public education like hyenas over a carcass, taxpayers need to take a closer look at what public schools are for.

Until recent times, few children received an education beyond what their parents could teach them.Education is expensive. It is time-consuming. Only the wealthy classes could afford to permit their children time away from work to learn such abstract subjects as reading and mathematics.

Public schools are a recent invention

Public schools came along only a few hundred years ago. Manufacturing societies require a workforce that can read, write, and follow directions. The continuance of the American experiment with democracy depends upon a literate, informed voting population.

As early as the founding, Jefferson recognized the need for a system of public education, but the new government lacked funds to put one in place. As time went on and the economic system became more complex, state governments saw the need for a literate workforce and began to develop a system of public schools.

The goal of the first public schools was to teach children reading, writing, and arithmetic—the Three R’s. In addition, children were expected to acquire information and behavior that would make them capable workers and enable them to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Race to the past

Not until 1954 did the United States see the creation of a public system of schools open to all the nation’s children—girls and boys of every racial, ethnic, and religious background. The concept shattered the status quo. State legislators acted quickly to find ways around Brown v. Education (1954).

The citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas went to the extreme of voting to close their schools, rather than permit Black children to attend.

Private “segregation academies” popped up like mushrooms.

Citizens in Holmes County, Mississippi burned down the high school—twice.

Black-only Adkin High School in Kinston, North Carolina, remained segregated until 1970.

The current drive to privatize education is a move to restore the inequities of the past. Using taxpayer money to fund this drive is unconscionable

Charter schools and vouchers not what they are touted to be

The hype for charter schools and school vouchers funded by tax dollars intended for the public schools focuses on “parental choice.

An interview in the New York Post (18 December 2021) highlights typical justification for funneling tax money to private schools.

The activist interviewed bases his enthusiasm for charter schools and vouchers on the fact that he attended a magnet school for high school. (A magnet school is a far cry from the current crop of charter schools, but that’s another story.)

Let’s look at his assertions.

Funding should follow the decision of a family, wherever that leads.
By “funding,” he means the money provided to fund public schools. Clearly, his assertion is bogus. Families certainly have the right to educate their children privately, but not with tax money.

Education funding doesn’t belong to government schools in the first place.
Wrong again.

Tax money is contributed by millions of tax payers who do not have children in the public schools. Every taxpayer is required to support public schools because public schools (like, say, the Federal Highway Administration) benefit the community. Private schools do not benefit all children. Ergo, private schools have no right to benefit from tax money provided by all taxpayers.

Education funding is for educating children, not for propping up any institution.
Third time and out. There’s an interesting word choice here: propping. The implication is that the public schools are barely able to stand.

Tax money is not meant to “prop up” the public schools but to maintain them in a functioning condition. Politicians who talk about “failing public schools” should be charged with dereliction of duty. One of the functions of a state legislature is to provide for public education. Whose fault is it, then, that “failing” public schools exist in their states?

Time to rethink the purpose of public education

The original purpose of public schools—to provide a basic, no-frills grounding in literacy, numeracy, general knowledge, and a cooperative mindset—has expanded.

Nowadays, the public expects public schools to provide higher level academic subjects, lunches, mental health counselling, individual study plans, and security personnel to guard against armed intruders.

Perhaps states could use their limited funds to restructure their “failing” districts around a few well taught foundational subjects and provide community programs to alleviate the effects of poverty on the children who attend public schools.

Schools can never be identical in what they offer. However, all public schools can be held to the function of turning out teenagers who can read well enough to continue their education on their own, if necessary.

Taxpayers who want their money to fund public education need to get serious about stopping the drain of public money into the private sector.

Illustration from The Lost Laugh

Preen, Michelle, Author, Karen Lilje, and Wilna Combrinck. The Lost Laugh. Cape Town: Book Dash, 2017. Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

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