James Shuls: Public Schools Do Not Serve All Students

by James V. Shuls

One of the great myths in education today is that public schools serve all students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nevertheless, opponents of school choice make frequent use of this falsehood in arguing against any expenditure of public money to help disadvantaged students attend private schools. They argue: “If private schools do not serve every student, they should not get tax dollars.” It is time to set the record straight: individual schools — whether public or private — do not serve all students. Nor should they.

One prime example of a public school that does not serve all students is Metro Academic and Classical High School, a magnet school in the Saint Louis Missouri Public School District. U.S. News & World Report ranks Metro as the No. 1 public school in the state, for good reason. Metro grads regularly go on to top-tier universities and perform exceptionally well on achievement tests.

There may be great things going on at Metro, but it cannot be denied that part of the school’s success is derived from its admissions process. To be admitted, a student must score proficient or advanced on the state MAP test. In 2013, nearly 14 percent of black eighth graders in Saint Louis scored proficient or advanced. That means more than 86 percent of black students in the Saint Louis Public School District do not meet the admissions criteria for Metro.

The Saint Louis Public School District has more than 25 magnet schools. Though most do not have admission standards as rigorous as those at Metro, they typically do have some requirements. By design, these admission standards keep students out.

Though they may not have magnet schools or a selective admissions process, other area districts do have special schools designed to serve their most disabled, disturbed, and/or disruptive students.

In 1992, the Parkway School District opened Fern Ridge High School. The school is designed to help “tenth through twelfth grade students, including those with disabilities, succeed when conventional methods have failed.” Students who cannot make it in the general population can be transferred to Fern Ridge. In other words, individual Parkway high schools do not serve all students.

Parkway is not alone in having a special school for students with unique challenges. In 1957, the Special School District (SSD) of Saint Louis County was established. It “was the net result of years of hard work and advocacy by parents of children whose educational needs were not being met by the existing public school system.” Today, the SSD serves approximately 23,000 students through services provided at district-run schools, independent sites, and two technical high schools. Area schools cannot serve these students by themselves, they either contract with the SSD or the students leave the traditional schools altogether.

Other students with disabilities attend the Missouri School for the Blind, the School for the Deaf, or use the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP) at home.

The bottom line is that individual schools do not serve all students. That is a good thing. There are great benefits that come from having highly specialized schools that are skilled at educating special students. Bright, gifted students are challenged and receive a tremendous education at Metro High. Students with special needs are encouraged and given the tools to succeed at Fern Ridge. By specializing, these schools are able to provide students with a better education than they might have received in a traditional school.

It is ridiculous to expect individual private schools to serve all students when individual public schools do not fulfill this task. Rather than place unrealistic expectations on private schools, or public schools for that matter, we should work to give every child access to the school that is going to best meet their needs. That may be a traditional district-run school, a magnet school, a special school, a charter school, and yes, even a private school.

Not every school will serve every student; but through school choice, every student can be served. As Milton Friedman once wrote, “The injection of competition would do much to promote a healthy variety of schools.” Isn’t that what we really need — a healthy variety of schools that can meet the unique needs of each of our students?

James V. Shuls, who joined the Show-Me Institute as an education policy analyst in July 2012, earned his Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Arkansas. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Missouri Southern State University and a master’s degree from Missouri State University, both in elementary education. Prior to pursuing his doctorate, James taught first grade and fifth grade in southwest Missouri. His primary research interests are in the areas of school choice and teacher quality. His work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including: Phi Delta Kappan, Social Science Quarterly, Education Week, The Rural Educator, Education News, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

James Shuls

James Shuls

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.