Public Schools and Government Schools

Earlier this year, I was saddened by the passing of Stanley Marshall, founder of the James Madison Institute, an organization that promotes individual freedom in Florida. Stan was president of Florida State University from 1969-1976, and went into private business before founding the James Madison Institute in 1987. I have worked with the Institute since it was founded and was privileged to be able to call Stan a friend. Stan had lots of friends, including those with whom he had political disagreements. He was an impressive individual who lived 91 good years, so while I was sad to see him go, his life deserves celebration.

Among the many insightful observations I heard from Stan was the distinction he made between public schools and government schools. Government schools should not be called public schools, he said, because they are not open to the public. In order to attend one, you must live in a particular district, so government schools exclude most of the public from being able to attend.

The schools we refer to as private schools, in contrast, are open to the public, so those schools really are public schools. As Stan saw it, non-government schools are public schools, while government schools are not.

This terminology can’t catch on, of course, because government schools have already appropriated the public school name. But the idea is worth sharing and repeating, just to disabuse people of the idea that government schools are open to the public.

The school choice movement is an attempt to allow students to choose which government school they attend, which would move government schools closer to being public schools. In this regard, note the pushback that the government education hierarchy is making against school choice. Teachers’ unions and school administrators are leading the charge to prevent government schools from actually becoming public schools.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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