Trump Is Right to Call Them ‘Government Schools’

This article appeared on the Washington Examiner on February 5, 2020.
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In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Trump said, “no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school.” Although reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post have already taken issue with the terminology, Trump is absolutely right to call them “government schools” instead of “public schools.” Here’s why.

Trump was referring to schools that are run by the government. Although the federal government does not directly operate individual schools, they are controlled by school districts, which are local government entities. These schools are also funded by a mix of federal, state, and local tax dollars that come with large amounts of regulations from various government agencies.

Calling these schools “public” is inaccurate for a few reasons. For one, these schools are not open to all members of the public. Because children are generally assigned to schools in the United States by residence, government‐​run schools regularly exclude students based on their ZIP codes.

In fact, several parents have been fined and even sent to jail for trying to get their children into better government schools by lying about their residences. Government‐​run magnet schools often use selective admissions processes. The government also compels us to attend schools and pay for their services regardless of how satisfied we are with the product.

Furthermore, government‐​run schooling is not a “public good,” according to the economic definition. A “public good” is both nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, and government‐​run schools fail both conditions. Schools can (and do) exclude people, and there are only a limited number of seats in each classroom.

It’s also not clear that government schools are even providing a meaningful “public benefit” since many of them consistently underperform despite getting more money year after year.

Using the term “government school” is also beneficial because it provides clarity to discussions about the education system. Because privately run charter schools are considered “public schools” by the Department of Education and many other government and nongovernment entities, using the term “public school” in conversations requires unnecessary clarification.

“Government school” is the most accurate term to use. The schools are government‐​run and government‐​funded. This fact makes people who defend the government‐​run school system very uncomfortable. But instead of trying to hide the fact that the government runs our schools, defenders of the status quo should think about why the truth about our education system makes them feel so uncomfortable.

Corey A. DeAngelis

Corey A. DeAngelis is the Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute.