Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

Lessons—Between Public and Private, a Third Way

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Between Public and Private, a Third Way

By Richard Rothstein

Saco, Me. — You could easily get the impression that there are two camps in education policy—one wanting to improve public schools and one favoring private alternatives.

But the gap between them is illusory. There is no clear line dividing public and private education. Religious schools often get public money for textbooks, compensatory education and busing. Many special education students get vouchers for private school tuition. Even some regular private schools are supported almost entirely by public dollars.

In contrast, some public high schools are run as autonomous fiefs by entrenched principals and department heads; they operate so independently that curricular reform is nearly impossible. In the burgeoning and mostly unsupervised charter school sector, some schools pursue strictly private purposes with little or no public accountability.

Rather than worrying if a school is public or private, it is better to think of all schools along a continuum of regulation, from highly regulated to relatively unregulated. Then we can determine which regulations, in both public and private sectors, are needed and which are excessive, which enhance schools’ performance and which impede it.

Vouchers, publicly paid tuition for private education, are not new. In New England, especially in Maine and Vermont, vouchers have been commonplace for 150 years. Cities that choose not to have their own public schools pay to send their children to private schools. Some students get vouchers to use at nonreligious private schools of their choice. In other cases, officials negotiate an exclusive contract with a private school for all of a city’s students.

Here in Saco, on the Maine coast just south of Portland, an elected school board operates only elementary and middle schools. With no high school of its own, the City of Saco pays a fee to the private Thornton Academy to educate the city’s secondary students.

Is Thornton Academy, founded in 1811 when high school education was a rare privilege, now public or private? Nobody can say for sure. Its teachers, like other private-sector workers and unlike public-school teachers in Maine and many other states, are covered by Social Security. Yet all but 20 of Thornton’s 1,100 students have their tuition paid by Saco or other nearby towns. Thornton teachers are in Maine’s teacher retirement system, which is supposed to be open only to public educators.

Thornton Academy is governed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees that appoints a headmaster. The board’s budgetary deliberations are shielded from the cantankerous open debates typical of public education. But the academy’s contract with Saco requires that Thornton use only Maine-certified teachers and that it administer the state tests required of public high school students. Shattering another stereotype of private schools, the academy has a teachers union, as do about half the private schools in New England that accept public voucher students.

Thornton’s headmaster must report to the city’s public school officials regarding the academy’s curriculum, test scores, graduation rates and college acceptances. Saco’s superintendent of schools sits on Thornton’s curriculum committee. The City of Saco requires that Thornton be accredited by the organization that accredits public schools.

The academy’s teachers coordinate their courses with Saco’s elementary and middle schools. For example, last year Thornton teachers decided to introduce biology, chemistry and physics in the ninth grade. That made it desirable for middle schools to cover earth science, because it would no longer be part of the high school course of study.

The public and private school teachers agreed on this approach. Such consultations give Thornton Academy more alignment with feeder schools than is typical in many fully public systems.

Recently, Thornton’s headmaster, Carl J. Stasio Jr., appeared before Saco’s school board to explain his decision to drop wood shop and auto mechanics classes. He underwent skeptical questioning from a board member who thought the academy was paying insufficient attention to students who were not college-bound. The school board has no authority to overrule Mr. Stasio, but if he does not retain the board’s confidence, the City of Saco could send its tuition dollars elsewhere or, as some New England towns have done, end the voucher system and build its own public high school.

With many public schools as unaccountable in how they spend tax dollars as New England’s private academies are accountable, a focus on whether a school is public or private may obscure a more important issue: for what should schools that get tax dollars be held responsible, regardless of their public or private status? The range of possibilities is vast, with too little thought given to which models work best.

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