Philanthropy and Education / Philanthropy in the News

Why We Consider Public Schools Public & Charter Schools Private

Editors’ Note: This piece by Johann N. Neem continues the site’s philanthropy & education forum

Earlier this month, the Washington Supreme Court determined that charter schools are ineligible to receive public school funds under the 1889 state constitution. Article 9, section 2 of the Washington constitution states that “the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.” Upholding precedent from a century ago, the court determined that because charter schools “are run by an appointed board or nonprofit organization and thus are not subject to local voter control, they cannot qualify as ‘common schools.’” This decision reflects a conversation, ongoing since the early years of the republic, about the relationship between public authority and education, with implications for educational philanthropy.

The court’s definition of a public school accords with our current understanding, but it reflects a historical shift in the meaning of “public” during the decades after the American Revolution. In fact, immediately following independence, self-governed chartered institutions—whether schools, colleges, bridges, or even banks—were considered public. At the time of the Revolution, to be public did not necessarily mean run by the state, but meant instead serving a public interest worthy of state support.

At a time when states lacked the capacity to run their own institutions, the legislature instead would pass special acts to allow a group of people to undertake work in the public interest. And Americans did just that, establishing charter schools called academies around the nation to increase educational access. These schools had independent boards but, like other institutions such as hospitals and charities, often received state subsidies, from direct funds to one-time gifts.

Why did the meaning of public change? The first reason has to do with changing notions of authority. Before the Revolution, authority was vested largely in people. From the king down to local town fathers, certain people embodied public authority. But a republic, as John Adams said, is “a government of laws, and not of men.” If all citizens are equal before the law, public authority should be derived from holding office, rather than the other way around.

The struggle over the nature of authority would have a dramatic impact on the relationship between philanthropy and education. A divisive dispute over Dartmouth College reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1810s. Dartmouth’s colonial-era charter established an independent board of trustees. In colonial times, however, the men who would have served on Dartmouth’s board would have also been prominent officeholders or ministers. The public status of the college was maintained through the public status of the men themselves.

When Jeffersonians gained control of New Hampshire in 1816, however, there was a divide between the people who controlled the state and the Federalists who retained control of Dartmouth’s board. Jeffersonians reasonably assumed that Dartmouth was a public college and they sought to change its charter to encourage greater state oversight. The Federalist trustees resisted, arguing that their charter granted them rights that the state could not violate. The US Supreme Court agreed with Dartmouth’s trustees in 1819, determining that the school was a private charity, not a public body. No longer were personal status and public authority linked. What mattered was governance.

By the 1830s, education reformers like Horace Mann sought to build public school systems. At the time, there were two kinds of schools, charter academies and district schools overseen by locally elected trustees. Although states patronized both kinds of institutions, Mann and others favored expanding tax support for and enrollment in the district schools. They had two reasons for doing so. The first was their commitment to equality. Mann worried that if rich, educated parents “turn away from the Common Schools” in favor of “the private school or the [chartered] academy,” poorer children would receive an inferior education. As Massachusetts governor Samuel Adams had put it, citizens “will never willingly and cheerfully support two systems of schools.”

But more was at stake than governance. At a time of increasing immigration, Mann and other reformers believed that common schools were necessary to encourage social solidarity. Ohio’s Calvin Stowe (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s husband) argued that “to sustain an extended republic like our own, there must be national feeling, a national assimilation.” John Pierce, the new state of Michigan’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, celebrated public schools where “all classes are blended together; the rich mingle with the poor, and are educated in company…and mutual attachments are formed.”

The question of social solidarity was particularly salient following the Civil War. Not only had the nation divided violently, but also continued immigration kept the “school question” before the public. Many Catholics argued that their children should be allowed to attend parochial schools with public dollars. Most Americans—some inspired by anti-Catholic nativism—believed that public dollars must only be used for public schools. States across the nation passed constitutional provisions prohibiting public school funds to be used in sectarian schools, reinforcing the line between public and private education.

The recent decision in Washington draws from these 19th-century roots. The disaggregation of public from personal authority combined with Americans’ belief that common schools were necessary to encourage equality and social solidarity to distinguish public schools from private ones. These assumptions animated the education clause of the 1889 constitution, and continue to shape how we think about the relationship between education and philanthropy today.

-Johann N. Neem

Johann N. Neem is Professor of History at Western Washington University, and a Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (Harvard, 2008).

One thought on “Why We Consider Public Schools Public & Charter Schools Private

  1. Not just a good entry, but an important one.

    In fact, I would say that it is more important than good. Knowledge of this history — our history — is vital to understanding current debates and how courts rule.

    This post would be better if Neem explicitly laid out out the current questions or issues that this history might inform — of course without insisting on particular answers.

    For example:

    * Is governance the essential factor differentiating public from non-public schools?
    * What is the role of public funding is differentiating public from non-public schools?
    * Are there other factors we might consider in differentiating public from non-public schools?
    * For what, if any, reason might we differently distinguish public from non-public schools?

    I entirely agree with Neem in the argument he puts forth in this piece, but I am concerned that those who start from a different “conclusion” need a bit of help (or scaffolding) in understanding this issue.


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