The different meanings of “public”

A brief gloss this morning on Bruce Baker’s take on whether (and the extent to which) charter schools are public schools: to historians this splitting of the meaning of “public” makes sense.

As historians of education such as Michael Katz have noted, one of the consequences of the common-school movement in the 19th century was to create and consolidate a common definition of “public school.” In the early 19th century, there was no direct state support for local village (“district”) schools, with tuition (“rates”) generally paid by parents to support school sessions.1 In cities, the “public” schools in the sense of universal access were pauper or charity schools, which many poor parents avoided because of the stigma.

By the late 19th century, Northern states were moving towards limiting or prohibiting tuition (public support), putting schools in the hands of elected bodies (public control), with broad if not universal admission (public access). In addition, the history of conflict between the becoming-public schools and the Catholic hierarchy led to a growing divide between the schools with these three meanings of “public” and what has become known as the private sector.2 Finally, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were several developments that led to teachers’ being considered in a new category, “public employees,” along with state and federal civil servants, municipal employees, and so forth, and in the post-WW2 period, public employees became a legally interesting category because private-employee labor law excluded them from the Wagner Act. Today, we can add “publicly accountable” for various meanings of accountability.

I have long held the view that the growth of charter schools and the experiments with vouchers have changed the landscape of schooling in part because they chipped away at the multi-level meaning of “public” that had mostly consolidated by the end of the 19th century. Analyzing the issues separately today makes sense.


  1. There were local taxes that supported schools, but this was a local decision in the early federal years, and public funds were and remained stingy. []
  2. That division has not been absolute, as I argued ten years ago in an article about the history of special education. []