James Shuls: Tear Down The Wall Between Public Dollars and Private Schools

by James V. Shuls

Growing up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Saint Louis a decade ago, Korey Stewart-Glaze knew where he went to school mattered. Korey’s neighborhood high school is a dropout factory; fewer than half of the students graduate on time. If he had attended that school, he says “I might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and be in jail or dead today.” That was the fate for many of his friends, but that would not be his fate. At a key moment in his life, Korey’s path was altered. His story can teach us a valuable lesson about what it means to provide a great public education to all students.

Rather than continue on in the traditional public schools, Korey’s family scraped together enough money to send him to a school that would put him on a different path, De La Salle Middle School at St. Matthew’s. He then earned a scholarship to a well-regarded private high school and went on to graduate from Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., in 2012.

Korey’s decision to attend De La Salle proved to be very beneficial for him — and for the public at large. We all benefit every time our schools — public or private — succeed in turning children into motivated and productive citizens. Yet, for some reason, we have constructed a Great Wall that absolutely prohibits public funds from going to private schools to support the education of children whose parents cannot afford to pay tuition. In essence, we have decided that only government-run schools are capable of providing public education. This just is not so. No such wall exists in higher education, where students can use publicly subsidized loans to attend private schools.

Noted economist Milton Friedman regularly argued that government funding of education does not necessitate government provision of education. Echoing this sentiment, former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham-Keegan wrote in 2000, “If we want to save the public schools, we mustn’t confuse the ideal of public education — that every child has the right to a good K-12 education at public expense — with any particular system, including the one we’ve got.” The system “we’ve got” is not public education, it is just that — a system. Public education should not mean assigning students to a specific type of school, regardless of quality, but rather that we provide access to a quality education, regardless of the type of school delivering that education.

Our traditional public schools are filled with thousands of Koreys. Some are trapped in failing schools. Some are in good schools that simply are not meeting their needs. Our narrow definition of public education prevents more students like Korey from receiving the education they deserve.

It is time to tear down the long-standing wall between public dollars and private schools so that more students like Korey can benefit from the increased educational options it would bring. Private schools should be enlisted into the cause of providing publicly financed education. Many private schools could do that very well.

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.