Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good 

Tough day at school! Cute child near the blackboard indoors. Kid is learning in class. Complex math, arithmetic and examples. Numbers written with chalk on board.


When schooling comes to be viewed mainly as a source of private benefit, both schools and society suffer grave consequences. 


We Americans tend to talk about public schooling as though we know what that term means. But in the complex educational landscape of the 21st century — where charter schools, private schools, and religious schools compete with traditional public schools for resources and support — it’s becoming less and less obvious what makes a school “public” at all. 

A school is public, one might argue, if it meets certain formal criteria: It is funded by the public, governed by the public, and openly accessible to the public. But in that case, what should we make of charter schools, which are broadly understood to be public schools even though many are governed by private organizations? And how should we categorize private schools that enroll students using public vouchers or tax credits, or public schools that use exams to restrict access? For that matter, don’t private schools often serve public interests, and don’t public schools often promote students’ private interests?  

In short, our efforts to distinguish between public and nonpublic schools often oversimplify the ways in which today’s schools operate and the complex roles they play in our society. And such distinctions matter because they shape our thinking about education policy. After all, if we’re unclear which schools deserve what kinds of funding and support, then how do we justify a system of elementary, secondary, and higher education that consumes more than $800 billion in taxes every year and consumes 10 to 20 or more years of every person’s life?  

To clarify what we mean by public schooling, it’s helpful to broaden the discussion by considering not just the formal features of schools (their funding, governance, and admissions criteria) but also their aims. That is, to what extent do they pursue the public good, and to what extent do they serve private interests? 

A public good is one that benefits all members of the community, whether or not they contribute to its upkeep or make use of it personally. In contrast, private goods benefit individuals, serving only those people who take advantage of them. Thus, schooling is a public good to the extent that it helps everyone (including people who don’t have children in school). And schooling is a private good to the extent that it provides individuals with knowledge, skills, and credentials they can use to distinguish themselves from other people and get ahead in life.  

People, organizations, and governments that create public goods tend to face what is known as the “free-rider” problem: If you can’t prevent people from enjoying goods for free, then they’ll have little incentive to pay for them. For example, if I can hang out at my local park whenever I want, then why should I donate to the park cleanup fund that my neighbors organized? I can get a free ride on them, enjoying a clean park without chipping in any of my own money. 

The standard solution to the free-rider problem is to make it mandatory for everybody to support certain public goods (for example, efforts to reduce air pollution, fight crime, and monitor food safety) by using mechanisms such as general taxation. Indeed, this is how we’ve always supported our public schools. You may pay tuition to send your children to an exclusive, ivy-covered academy — or you might not have kids at all — but even so, you are required to pay taxes to fund schools for the whole community. Your family may not benefit personally from the services provided by, say, the elementary school down the road, but you do benefit, along with your neighbors, from having a well-funded school nearby. If local kids get a decent education and grow up to become gainfully employed, law-abiding citizens, that is a public good. It makes the entire community a better, safer, and happier place to live. 

The key characteristic of the common school was not its curriculum or pedagogy but its commonality. 

For much of American history, schooling has been understood in this way. For example, at the founding of our educational system, in the early 19th century, schools were supposed to turn young people into virtuous and competent citizens, a public good that was strongly political in nature. By the turn of the 20th century, schooling was still regarded mainly as a public good, but the mission had begun to shift from politics (creating citizens) to economics (training capable workers who can help promote broad prosperity). Over the subsequent decades, however, growing numbers of Americans came to view schooling mainly as a private good, producing credentials that allow individuals to get ahead, or stay ahead, in the competition for money and social status.  

In this article, I argue that this shift in how Americans have viewed schooling — from conceiving of it mainly as a public good to defining it mostly as a private good — has led to dramatic changes in both the quality of the education that students receive and the kind of society we expect our schools to create. The institution that for much of our history helped bring us together into a community of citizens is increasingly dispersing us into a social hierarchy defined by the level of education we’ve attained. 

The social functions of U.S. schooling: A short history 

In the early 19th century, the United States created a system of universal public schooling for the same reason that other emerging nations have done so over the years: to turn subjects of the king into citizens of the state (Labaree, 2010).  

Historically, public schooling has been the midwife of the nation-state, whose viability depends on converting the occupants of a particular territory into members of an imagined community who come to see themselves for the first time as French, say, or American. This mission was particularly important for the United States because it was a republic entering a world that had long demonstrated hostility toward the survival of such states. From ancient Rome to the Italian city states of the Renaissance, republics tended either to succumb to a tyrant or be destroyed in a Hobbesian war among irreconcilable interests.  

As the founders well knew, the survival of the American republic depended on its ability to form individuals into a republican community in which citizens were imbued with a commitment to the public good (Labaree, 1997). Further, when the Common School Movement emerged in the 1820s and ’30s, it faced an additional challenge, because the shared civic virtue of the fragile new republic was undergoing a vigorous challenge from the possessive individualism of the emerging free-market economy. Horace Mann (1841), the leader of the movement in Massachusetts, put the case this way: “It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.” 

The key characteristic of the new common school was not its curriculum or pedagogy but its commonality. It brought young people together into a single building where they engaged in a shared social and cultural experience meant to counter the differences of social class that posed a serious threat to republican identity. Ideally, students would learn, in age-graded classrooms, to belong to a community of equals.  

The goal of these schools wasn’t just to teach young people to internalize democratic norms but also to make it possible for capitalism to coexist with republicanism. For the free market to function, the state had to relax its control over individuals, allowing them to make their own decisions as rational actors. By learning to regulate their own thoughts and behaviors within the space of the classroom, students would become prepared for both commerce and citizenship, able to pursue their self-interests in the economic marketplace while at the same time participating in the political marketplace of ideas. 

However, by the end of the 19th century, the survival of the republic was no longer in question. At that point, the United States was emerging as a world power, with booming industrial production, large-scale immigration, and a growing military presence. And while there was some pressure to turn peasant immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe into American citizens, policy makers were even more concerned with turning them into modern industrial workers. In the roaring economy of the Progressive Era, then, the mission of schooling evolved: The most pressing goal was to strengthen the nation’s human capital (to put it in today’s terms). 

Note, though, that schooling during this time continued to be defined as a public good. When the workforce became more skilled and productivity increased, the whole country benefited. Overall, Americans’ standard of living improved. Thus, there remained a strong rationale for everyone to contribute to the education of other people’s children. And that rationale continues to resonate somewhat today. Even now, politicians and policy makers often talk about “investing” public funds in education as a way to promote economic growth, lifting all boats. 

It was only in the 20th century that schooling came to be regarded as the primary means for individuals to obtain a good job. As their enrollments skyrocketed, high schools gave up the long-standing practice of providing a common course of study for all students and, instead, differentiated the curriculum, providing separate tracks designed for different career trajectories: the industrial course for factory workers, the business course for clerical workers, and the academic course for those bound for college (and then for work in management and the professions). As one school board president in the 1920s put it, “For a long time, all boys were trained to be President . . . Now we are training them to get jobs” (Lynd & Lynd, 1929, p. 194). 

The new vocationalism lacked the grandeur of the mission set for the Common School, but it did address parents’ primary concern: how to ensure their children ended up with a good income and a secure social position, ideally by landing a job in the upper ranks of the new occupational hierarchy. Such work tended to be safer, cleaner, less manual, more secure, more prestigious, and better paid. And, crucially, each step up in the hierarchy required a higher level of education.  

This new function of schooling — allocating desirable jobs — was in some ways just the flip side of the idea that schools exist to produce capable workers. What a policy maker views as a process of strengthening the nation’s human capital looks, to the individual student, like a way to attain personal status. For the student, school becomes purely a contest to obtain better educational qualifications and get better jobs. And from this angle, school is a decidedly private good. The pursuit of high-status jobs is a zero-sum game. If you get hired for a position, then I don’t.  

All but gone is the assumption that the purpose of schooling is to benefit the community at large. Less and less often do Americans conceive of education as a cooperative effort in nation-building or a collective investment in workforce development. Increasingly, rather, school comes to be viewed as an intense competition among individuals to get ahead in society and avoid being left behind. It has begun to look, to a great extent, like a means of creating winners and losers in the pursuit of academic merit, with the results determining who becomes winners and losers in life. 

Consequences of the rise of schooling as a private good 

When schools become a mechanism for allocating social status, they provoke intense competition over invidious educational distinctions. But while schooling may serve as a very private good, that doesn’t mean it can’t also function, at the same time, as a public good.  

At one level, everyone who attends a school benefits personally from the knowledge, skills, and socialization they gain there, as well as from any diplomas they receive, which certify their learning and provide a signal to the job market about their relative employability for a variety of occupational positions. Viewed from this angle, even students at the most traditional public schools accrue private goods.   

And at another level, everyone in society benefits from having a well-educated and successful group of fellow citizens and coworkers. One of the core concepts of neoclassical economics is that the pursuit of private and personal gain often has public benefits. People with more education tend to commit fewer crimes, participate more fully in public life, vote more often, and contribute to civil society through engagement with a variety of nongovernmental organizations. They are more likely to assume positions of political, social, and economic leadership and to populate the professions. And they tend to be more productive workers, which helps both to spur economic growth and to increase the standard of living for the population as a whole. The fact that these benefits may be unintended consequences, resulting indirectly from people seeking personal gain and glory, doesn’t make them any less significant. 

Consider the classic statement of this phenomenon by Adam Smith (1776/1976): “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest . . . Nobody but a beggar chuses [sic] to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens” (p. 18). From this perspective, the competition for educational advantage benefits not only the individuals who gain the credentials but also the public at large. When we strengthen the level of skill in the workforce, everybody’s quality of life improves. And if true, this solves the free-rider problem: Rather than compelling people to contribute to the public good, we can simply encourage them to pursue their private interests, trusting that this will, over the long haul, produce the greatest benefits for everybody.  

The problem is that, whether or not this theory is correct, few of us can afford to wait for the long haul. Encouraging individuals to pursue their private interests doesn’t do much for the vast numbers of people who have serious obstacles to confront in the short term. Moreover, while a rising tide of economic growth may raise all boats, this doesn’t change the fact that most kids are born in dinghies, not yachts.  

We know from decades of research that children from lower-income backgrounds usually attend worse schools than those born into affluent families, are less likely to be in the high-level reading group or on the honors track, and are much less likely to graduate from high school. If they go to college, they are less likely to attend a four-year institution and are less likely to earn a degree. And every year, it becomes less and less likely that a person who was born in a dinghy will ever end up owning a yacht, much less raise their children in one.     

Increasingly, school comes to be viewed as an intense competition among individuals to get ahead in society and avoid being left behind.  

For those families that do enjoy greater wealth, the public benefits of schooling are easy to miss, whereas the private benefits are material, immediate, and personal. When push comes to shove, the latter are simply more compelling. It’s no surprise that affluent parents will deploy their economic, social, and cultural capital to gain as many educational advantages as they can for their children. They move to the best school district they can afford or send their kids to private school; they make sure they get into the classes with the best teachers and gain access to the gifted program in elementary school and the advanced placement program in high school. And they push their children toward the most selective college they can attend. To do anything less would be a disservice.  

Sure, in the name of fairness and justice, parents could choose to send their children to the same lousy schools that less fortunate people are forced to attend. But even if they support efforts to improve the quality of educational opportunities for other people’s children, what kind of parent would put their children’s future at risk for a political principle?  

In short, the pursuit of private educational goods drives most parents’ immediate decisions, while efforts to promote the public good are deferred to the indeterminate realm of political action for possible resolution in the distant future. It’s not that anybody wants to punish other people’s children; it’s just that they need to take care of their own. But when the public good is forever postponed, the effects are punishing indeed. And when schooling comes to be viewed solely as a means of private advancement, the consequences are dismal for both school and society: 

  • Over time, the market rewards the accumulation of educational credentials more than it values knowledge and skills. For example, employers will pay a higher salary to a person who squeaked out a college degree than one who excelled in all four years of college but left one credit short of a diploma. 
  • As a result, students learn early on that the goal is to acquire as many grades, credits, and degrees as possible rather than the knowledge and skills that these tokens are supposed to represent. So much the better if you can find ways to game the system (by, for example, studying only what’s likely to be on the test, buttering up the teacher, or just plain cheating). Only a sucker pays the sticker price.
  • In turn, schooling becomes more and more stratified, in two related ways: First, students have incentives to pursue the highest level of schooling they can (a graduate degree is better than a four-year degree,which is better than a two-year degree, and so on). Second, they have incentives to get into the highest-status institutions they can, at every level.
  • Cooperative learning becomes a dangerous waste of time. Students have no incentive to learn from their classmates but only to maximize their own ranking relative to them.
  • Families with more economic and cultural and social capital begin to hoard educational opportunities for their own children, elbowing others aside for access to the most desirable schools, teachers, and other resources.
  • This, in turn,  threatens the legitimacy of the whole system, undermining the claim that people succeed according to their educational merit.  
  • Moreover, people with the highest-status degrees and jobs tend to marry each other and pass their concentrated levels of advantage on to their own children, which only widens the divide across subsequent generations.
  • Enjoying greater wealth, those parents choose to send their children to private schools, or they choose to live in neighborhoods with elite public schools — in any case, the nominally “public” school hardly differs from the private academy, except that while it enjoys public subsidies, its boundaries have been drawn up in a way that denies access to other people’s children. (In effect, such a school is a public resource turned toward private ends.)

My point is that over the last several decades, as schooling has come to be viewed mainly as a source of private benefit rather than as a public good, the consequences have been dramatic for both schools and society. Increasingly prized as a resource by affluent families, traditional public schooling has become a mechanism by which to reinforce their advantages. And as a result, it has become harder and harder to distinguish what is truly public about our public schools.  

At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling. The invisible hand of the market may work for the general benefit in the economic activities of the butcher and the baker but not in the political project of creating citizens.  


Labaree, D.F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34 (1), 39-81. 

Labaree, D.F. (2010). Founding the American school system. In Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (pp. 42-79). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Lynd, R.S. & Lynd, H.M. (1929). Middletown. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and World. 

Mann, H. (1841). Fifth annual report to the Massachusetts Board of Education. Boston, MA: Board of Education. 

Smith, A. (1776/1976). An inquiry in the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 


Citation: Larabee, D.L. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 8-13. 




DAVID F. LABAREE (; @DLabaree) is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, emeritus, at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author, most recently, of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press, 2017). 


  • Joel Berg, Ph.D.

    Professor Labaree uses the phrase “other people’s children” a few times in this excellent analysis. An article, “Other People’s Children,” by James M. Spinning, former Superintendent of Schools in Rochester, NY, was published in the NEA Journal, September 1957. In this splendid piece, Mr. Spinning makes the case clearly to the public that the education of other people’s children is more important than the education of one’s own. It is well worth reading!

  • Why We Should Care About the Education of Other People’s Children

  • Wendy Hughes

    Eric Hanushek misses the point. It is not the self-interested choice of schooling that is the problem. It is the public-funding of private institutions and the development of stratified learning in public institutions that is fueling inequity in schooling.
    We need to be clear that bringing students together in a ‘common’ school, funded by the public, promotes community and equality. Publicly funding private schools and stratifying public elementary and secondary schools does the opposite.

  • Lacey Sheridan

    I hate that I’m writing this, but after 35 years in the NYC public schools, I feel qualified to comment. No matter how you re-align public schools, nothing will work unless and until the students are compliant. When kids ignore or curse the teachers, throw things, scream across the room and any other disruptive behavior you can imagine, no learning is taking place. No one, of any race, will send their children to a school that they perceive as dangerous, or underperforming. There are videos on Youtube of out of control classrooms; better yet, watch “Lean on Me” with Morgan Freeman.

  • Juliet Oscar

    Charter schools are public schools. Open to all students. In our state paid with fewer public dollars than traditional schools. The big difference is the local school board has no say in the running of these schools, and the schools are not given funding from the district. In a district where the school board makes poor choices and hides information from the public, these charter schools give parents a way to enroll their children in public schools that are more likely to get good results.

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Too much self-interested choice?

David Labaree makes a strong case, albeit one built on circumstantial evidence, that the American education system has gone off the rails. In particular, rampant competition in schools motivated by potential private economic gain has led to a neglect of the public interest component of schooling and increasing stratification.

This argument has its greatest appeal if schooling is purely a signaling or selection device instead of something that changes individual skills. The signaling model says that schools simply perform a sorting activity, arraying people on the basis of skills before entering schools. In its starkest form, since schools do not really add anything to individual skills, the schooling serves no social value in terms of economic outcomes. In such a case, we might hope that schools played a large “public role,” socializing all students and developing more of a societal view of the culture and expectations of the nation. And, if some people found that they were placed into schools with specializations that they did not want, there would be no overall economic costs even if there was some redistribution across individuals.

But my reading of the evidence is that schools are not simple screening devices. While some relatively small part of their operations might do that, the vast majority of their work is changing the skills of people. These changed skills are valuable in the labor market, implying that incentives are created to make some specific schooling investments.  Moreover, it is hardly surprising that many students respond by seeking occupations and industries that reward higher skills.

Labaree bemoans the fact that people are responding to the incentives, but economists are neither surprised nor upset by that. That response in general has people investing in skills and going into fields that match their talents and interests and that lead to a productive economy.

We should of course worry if we are systematically disadvantaging some through poor schools that reinforce existing economic disparities, but that is something different from worrying about individuals working too hard to make sound educational investments.

Moreover, there is little evidence that firms are making mistakes. While they may initially react to degree levels and the selectivity of schools attended as a rough indicator of the skills of individuals, there is evidence that they refine their initial guesses over time. The people who truly have the skills they were looking for get retained and promoted, while those who have less skills than initially hoped by the firm find that they are less successful over time.

It is the case that the returns to skills have increased over time, and this has increased the incentives for individuals to seek specialties that are demanded by the economy and to strive harder to get into better schools. Almost certainly this means a decline in some specializations that are less related to skills that are demand in the economy, although the relation of this to the public interest is harder to see.

Take, however, the position that in this more intensive search for economic gain we are, as Labaree suggests, seeing a movement away from the public interest. Is there a policy prescription? Is there an argument for an information campaign to convince people not to pursue things that they thought were in their self-interest? Should we put quotas on the number of people going into fields with large private returns? Should we increase taxes in order to subsidize people who want to go into fields that are in less demand in the economy? And, ultimately, in the move toward a world of “increased public interest,” who is given responsibility for deciding which fields should thrive and which should be reduced and for deciding which individuals should be allowed to pursue their own self-interest? The economist worries about the answers to these questions.

ERIC A. HANUSHEK is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Common schools create the public good

David Labaree has spent his career examining why and how private interests corrupt public institutions. As he argues in his book, Someone Has to Fail (2010), even as Americans expanded access to public schools, they sorted themselves. For K-12 schools, this sorting included internal tracking and, of course, residential segregation by class and race. Voters reinforced these inequalities by ensuring that school district boundaries separated the haves from the have-nots. For colleges, sorting depended on developing a pyramid with elite schools at the top. Not all diplomas and degrees would be created equal. Children who attended the “right” schools would receive an education with greater market value. The result, as Labaree argues in the above essay, is that Americans seek credentials for their market value, rather than an education for its personal or civic value.

In his response, Eric Hanushek argues that it is possible that schooling also develops students’ actual skills. It may not all be signaling. Yet, in making this claim, Hanushek ignores Labaree’s larger point: if education is a public good, we have to consider its value more broadly, as accruing not just to the student but to society. Despite Hanushek’s concerns as “the economist,” Labaree’s argument is grounded in economics. Economists argue that individuals will underinvest in public goods absent government intervention. If education is a public good, it is because its benefits—civic and economic—are widely shared. Moreover, because public education prepares citizens, it requires a curriculum designed for more than developing human capital. It demands a broader liberal education so that all Americans have the skills, the knowledge, and what our nation’s founders called the “virtue” to be capable voters.

If Labaree has devoted his career to thinking about how private interests can corrupt public institutions, he spends less attention on how public institutions might overcome private interests. However, in the history of public education, I argue in my recent book Democracy’s Schools, we see both processes at work simultaneously. Americans learned to consider education as a public good not just because of abstract ideas but because of actual institutions.

For most Americans, support for public schools did not depend on the rhetoric of elite leaders such as Thomas Jefferson or Horace Mann. Instead, Americans supported public schools because they were involved with them. The institutions preceded the commitment. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in towns across America, legislators spurred citizens to come together in local districts to raise taxes, hire schoolteachers, and build schoolhouses. By working together as neighbors, Americans learned that they had common interests. As more parents sent their children to common schools, even more Americans wanted in. It became an expectation. This feedback loop reinforced Americans’ commitment to public schooling.

In other words, common institutions transformed parents’ private interests in their children into a shared interest in the education of others. Mann, secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1830s, knew it. He believed that the best way to expand public schooling was to make every family a stakeholder in the schools. Wealthier families would invest in other people’s children only if their own children attended the same schools and benefited from them. If some families decided to “turn away from the Common Schools” and send their children to a “private school or the academy,” poorer children would end up with a second-class education, he wrote in 1837. To ensure that students and their parents came together as a public, “there should be a free school, sufficiently safe, and sufficiently good, for all the children” in every district. The constituency for the public schools would be forged through the schools themselves.

Today, advocates of private school vouchers, for-profit schools, or privately-run charter schools argue that they are empowering families without wealth to make the same kinds of choices for their children as do wealthier parents. And to an extent, they are right. As Labaree shows, wealthier families have long used their resources to get their children into the “right” schools in the “right” school districts. In other words, the private interests of families have produced a system rife with inequality. We must right these wrongs. To do so requires a shared commitment to education as a public good. If, historically, it took common institutions to cultivate this commitment, we must ask ourselves what might happen to that commitment if Americans no longer go to school together.

JOHANN N. NEEM is professor of history at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, and the author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

Creating citizens

David Labaree suggests that Americans have neglected the ideals upon which the public school system was founded in pursuit of private educational gains. As part of his argument for this, he points to the growing school choice movement, which lets individuals choose the type of school they want their child to attend. He concludes that a system built on choice and competition may bring about improvements in the private marketplace, but it does not succeed at the “political project of creating citizens.” But what does it mean to make a citizen?

There is no doubt that the foundations of our public education system today are firmly rooted in the common school movement of the 19th century. The impetus for that movement was multi-faceted, but certainly focused on inculcating citizens. According to Labaree, “The key characteristic of the new common school was not its curriculum or pedagogy but its commonality.” In other words, citizens are created by forcing them to conform to the norm.

In his response to  Labaree, Common schools create the public good, Johann Neem discusses the adoption of common schools. He writes, “Americans supported public schools because they were involved with them.” He goes on to say that “by working together as neighbors, Americans learned that they had common interests.”

But both Labaree and Neem gloss over the diversity of the thousands of individual communities that came together to create “common schools.” Like-minded individuals, often those sharing the same faith, congregated together; they formed schools out of their shared interests. Writing about the common school movement in 1963, Bernard Mehl noted, “the local community, on their own terms, hire teachers and select textbooks to flavor the school with the particular religious leanings of the local group. As long as a community was united more or less in religious persuasion, it had nothing to fear from the common school because, in fact, it controlled the school’s curriculum.”

I’m afraid that both Labaree and Neem are nostalgic for a time that never existed.

I am not the only person to make this argument. In his book, Private Schools Public Power: A Case for Pluralism, E. Vance Randall explains this more clearly. He writes, “That the common school movement appealed to many should not be mistaken as a consensus on American education. It involved a bitter contest over whose private values and ideologies would be elevated to the status of public beliefs.” In Charles Glenn’s “The Myth of the Common School,” he argues “it was such exertion by groups that did not share the beliefs, values, and loyalties that the common school was intended to inculcate . . . that made the history of popular education in the nineteenth century so frequently stormy.”

And yet, throughout all of this tumult, and in the midst of all of this diversity, American schools (of vastly different stripes) turned out generation after generation of citizens who slowly but surely helped to form our more perfect union.

This is why I don’t fear a system with more choice, more competition, and more pluralism. Majority groups in this country should not co-opt the common school to impose their views on the minority. Parents should not have to check their values at the door to receive the benefit of a free public education. It cannot be true that a system which forces conformity is a system that will be conducive to diversity of thought, pluralism, and the essential qualities of a free and open society.

Labaree and Neem seem to think that citizens are made by forcing individuals to submit their desires to the will to the state. Luckily for us, Americans have never had to do that. We shouldn’t start now.

JAMES V. SHULS (; @shulsie) is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Were common schools truly common?

David Labaree convincingly argues that between the 19th century and the present, our nation’s educational ideals have shifted from an emphasis on creating citizens, which was central to the founding of the Common School movement, to a narrow focus on private educational gain, mainly benefiting the wealthy and well connected. In describing the phenomenon, he says,

“At a deeper level, as we have privatized our vision of public schooling, we have shown a willingness to back away from the social commitment to the public good that motivated the formation of the American republic and the common school system. We have grown all too comfortable in allowing the fate of other people’s children to be determined by the unequal competition among consumers for social advantage through schooling.”

I admire Labaree’s passion for a shared and expansive vision of educational access. However, I also wonder why he neglects to point out that his narrative about the origins of the common schools applies primarily to White male citizens of means. Women, Latinos, Native Americans, and Black people, for example, tend to have a very complicated relationship to the very concept of citizenship upon which the Common School movement was based. To turn our attention to their histories is to raise the possibility that the nation’s educational ideals haven’t shifted quite as seismically as Labaree would suggest. Education has always been about winners and losers, the advantaged and the less so. Opportunity hoarding and the pursuit of private gain were very much part of the early chapters of American education.

In my recent work, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the end of Public Education (The New Press, 2017), I tell a somewhat different story about the use, meaning, and possibilities of public education. I begin not with the Common School movement but with the Post-Reconstruction period following the Civil War, when compulsory and state supported education became widespread. Starting there, what I found is that since the earliest days in which tax-supported public education was conceived and implemented, there have been intractable tensions within the ways in which economics or race — or both — determine the funding, form, and purpose of education in America. These differences based on gender, color, and class have remained in effect throughout the history of our public schools, and they remain so today. Viewed from this perspective, the nature of education has remained more constant than Labaree suggests.

Rather than educating all children in the same way as we educate the wealthy, we have always, in every period, provided some children with lesser educational content (e.g., consider the recurring focus, beginning in the 19th century, on vocational education for the poor) and unproven models of educational funding and delivery (e.g., the recent rise of virtual charter schools). In short, we have always acted upon differing visions of the role of education in relation to citizenship. Our school systems have always steered the greatest educational resources and opportunities to the wealthy and well connected, and significantly less to poor communities and those of color.

It is worth noting also that separate, segregated, and unequal education has provided the opportunity for businesses to make a profit selling idiosyncratic forms of schooling (cyber education, for instance) to communities who believe deeply in education’s promise and potential to confer on them citizenship. In recent years, what I call “segrenomics” — the business of profiting from high levels of racial and economic segregation in our schools — has been on the rise, but it has long been with us. From the 19th century to the present, our schools have always been separate and unequal. And separate and unequal schooling has always been profitable, too.

NOLIWE ROOKS is a professor of Africana Studies, American Studies, & Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

A few thoughts in response

I appreciate the thoughtful comments that four invited scholars made to my article “Public schools for private gain.” Let me provide a few thoughts of my own in response to each.

Eric Hanushek makes an economic critique of my argument, asserting that schooling does more than provide credentials that get people jobs; it provides skills that are highly valued by employers because they make these employees more productive. He doesn’t deny that credentials may be the basis for the original hire, but he argues that over time employers keep and promote those with the best skills and then refine their future hiring in light of this process. I would agree up to a point. But this still leaves a powerful credentialing effect in place, since it’s the primary way to get hired in the first place. Employers rely on credentials for hiring decisions and hope they signal needed skills, which they don’t find out until workers have been on the job for a while. By this time, they’ve picked up the skills they need on the job that are not really taught in school anyway.

Another issue that he raises at the end is his concern about the possible policy interventions that might follow from my analysis. I share his concern, which is why I don’t recommend such policies. In an authoritarian state it is possible to restrict individual choice to keep families from pursuing their own interest through the educational choices they make on behalf of their children, but you can’t and shouldn’t do this in a liberal democracy. One thing you can do, however, is to keep from making things worse by encouraging more school choice. The public school bureaucracy is resented by upper-middle-class parents precisely because it limits their ability to pursue advantage for their own children at the expense of other people’s children.

The public school bureaucracy is resented by upper-middle-class parents precisely because it limits their ability to pursue advantage for their own children at the expense of other people’s children.

Johann Neem largely agrees with my paper. But he provides a valuable perspective by showing how important it was for the success of common schools that they were grounded in a rich informal institutional context in the mid-nineteenth century that nurtured their commonality. It’s a reminder to all of us that organizations like schools are not just organs of the state; they are public institutions whose success depends on a web of relationships and shared beliefs that are emergent qualities of community rather than policy constructs built according to government plan. (In the past two years in Washington, we have learned just how much the functioning of the federal government depends on institutional expectations, even more than law, for how officials should behave.)

James Shuls argues that Neem and I are pining for a communal basis for schools in the nineteenth century that never really existed even then. He makes a crucial point, which is that shared expectations and institutional stability are easiest to produce under conditions where the differences in the local population are minimal. One of the glories of American life in the twenty-first century — its enormous diversity or ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups — also makes it harder to develop the kind of consensus that institutions such as public schools require. Some of the early commonality arose because there was little need to compromise with people who were different. Today we don’t have that luxury. So, as this sense of cultural commonality has faded, the push coherence in public schooling becomes more dependent on legalistic rules instead. These rules are then gamed by self-interested consumers in an effort to turn schooling to their own individual benefit. Bye-bye public good.

Noliwe Rooks picks up this theme of difference and doubles down on the argument that schools never were common, arguing that race, gender, and class fractured the commonality of schools from day one. I would agree with her about race; it took 100 years after the common schools for government finally to compel racial integration. But public school classrooms from the very beginning contained both girls and boys, as David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot pointed out in their 1991 book, Learning Together. Given that this was occurring in Victorian America, where the sexes were radically segregated into separate spheres, this uncontested institutionalization of coeducation is particularly striking. They argue it emerged from the republican belief in the equality of White Americans in the civil sphere even if women couldn’t yet vote or hold office. As for class, I would argue that this was something the common school aimed at directly, trying to create a single school system for everyone in town. As they knew from history, republics can’t survive if class differences are too great, so they went to great pains to lure people of means into public schools. It was in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that class differences have come to overwhelm public schools, as we increasingly came to track students from different backgrounds toward different futures and created extended hierarchies of schooling that serve to reinforce class differences over time.

DAVID F. LABAREE (; @DLabaree) is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, emeritus, at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto, Calif. He is the author, most recently, of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press, 2017). 
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