What makes a school public and why?
In Kansas, ultra-conservative legislative office-holders have introduced bills, precursors of laws, dealing adversely with many facets of public schools. These legislators are not politicians. If they were, their education bills would strengthen public schools, not weaken them. They would try to gain favor with voters, not evoke their enmity. After all, the majority of voters are parents and grandparents of the children who attend public schools. Rather than promote the common good, these legislators pursue only their special interests.
This essay discusses the characteristics of schools that are called “public” and the role of public schools in our society. Information about the various bills recently introduced affecting public schools may be found on the Web sites of Kansas education advocates
First, public schools are learning places open to everyone needing an education. No income, human development standards, creedal thresholds, citizenship status or language proficiency tests exist for public school students. However, residency and age may determine an attendance site. Access to the classroom is as much a civil right as access to a public square.
Second, public schools are established by the people they serve, acting through democratically elected governmental bodies. Public schools exist because the people believe education is an important and integral part of a workable democratic society. An educated citizenry is essential to self-government.
Third, public schools are financed by public funds which come from direct taxes on property, income, and retail sales, or indirect “tax” revenues such as casinos, lotteries and tuition fees. An axiom of our democratic government is that public funds can only be spent for a public purpose under public control and accountability. Therefore, the schools supported by public funds must be open to everyone.
Fourth, public schools are governed by persons meeting residential and other qualifications who are chosen by registered voters in general elections. Kansas school governing bodies, called boards of education, and the schools under their purview are accountable to the educational authorities as specified by the state constitution and state law.
Fifth, public schools serving a community are organized into a district comprising elementary and secondary educational levels to facilitate curriculum planning and other educational concerns. Individual districts have boundaries established according to state law. The districts within a state collectively have the same territory as the state.
Sixth, public schools are open to scrutiny by anyone who wants to know their business, including their operating policies, finances, curriculum, and teaching methods and materials. Aggregate information about a public school is open to all, except information about individual students and staff members.
Seventh, a public school’s educational curriculum, as established by the local board of education, is as broad and diverse as the needs of the public it serves. Public schools educate students for academic knowledge, employment, avocational pursuits, physical fitness, health maintenance, social interaction skills and citizenship. Public schools have also been asked to provide safety, health and sex education.
Public schools do not provide religious doctrinal training, but may teach religious history, psychology, and philosophies.
Eighth, public schools transmit the culture of a locality, region and nation through history, social studies and language texts; fine arts of music, art and drama; competitive inter-scholastic and intra-mural sports; and extracurricular activities. Informal interactions among students also contribute to their socialization as members of the community. Public schools reflect the diversity of our communities.
Finally, public schools are central to many community activities from sporting events to science fairs, providing the cloth for the tapestry of community life. As such, they are key to preserving the American way and deserve our full support.
Common sense tell us that the Kansas Legislature should pass laws to facilitate the role of public schools in society and leave the operation of school systems to the State Board of Education which is charged with this responsibility by the State Constitution and to the locally elected school boards. State legislators should provide adequate and equitable funding as directed by the State Constitution.