A mile or so from my home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the county is completing work on a handsome new middle school, currently surrounded by plastic fences. Landscaping is under way, and I sympathize with the landscapers’ desire to keep the public from trampling over newly laid sod. Moreover, there are still construction crews present and it obviously won’t do to have the curious getting too near backhoes and tractors as they move large rocks. But I was caught short when I noticed that the perimeter fence is marked by signs that read Private Property: No Trespassing: Property of MCPS (i.e., Montgomery County Public Schools).
The obvious question is, Why is a school funded entirely by tax dollars being described as “private property”? Surely the new school is the property of Montgomery County, which means the property of the county’s citizens. There’s a deeper question here, though, and it bears on a longtime problem in the debate over governmental funding of elementary and secondary education. The problem is the shorthand that unthinkingly divides elementary and secondary schools into “public schools” and “private schools.” Even the Supreme Court majority in the recently decided case of Espinoza v. Montana used that language while effectively burying the anti-Catholic Blaine amendments that had marred dozens of state constitutions for well over a century.
Well, so what, you ask? To which the appropriate reply comes, as it often does in matters of language-and-politics, from George Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The conventional “public/private schools” dyad has done just that for far too long.
State schools — my preferred term for what are now routinely described as “public schools” — have used the language game of “public/private” to advance their own funding interests by suggesting that they alone serve a “public” function and that therefore they alone have a claim on the public purse. “Private” schools, it’s not so subtly suggested, serve only personal or private interests. But this is manifestly not true.
Take, for example, Catholic elementary and secondary schools — the most successful anti-poverty program ever sponsored by the Catholic Church in the United States. In Baltimore, 75 percent of inner-city Catholic-school students are not Catholics. In Washington, D.C., the number is 66 percent; in Detroit, 60 percent; in Chicago, 30 percent, and in Philadelphia, 23 percent. (Nationwide, 19 percent of the students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools are not Catholics.)
Those Catholic schools are independent schools, not “private” schools serving personal interests rather than the common good. Those independent schools are doing a public service by offering poor parents an alternative to often-failed state schools. The work ethic those Catholic schools embody helps prepare the adult citizens of the future for productive lives, even as they teach the the virtues of respect and tolerance. Catholic schools are more cost-effective than state schools, and they’re far more flexible in handling emergencies; in Montgomery County, for example, Catholics schools were weeks ahead of state schools in transitioning to online learning during the COVID-19 shutdown this spring. (Catholic schools also save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually. And should too many inner-city Catholic schools go under this fall because of the pandemic economic crisis and the inability of poor parents to afford tuition costs, more than one major urban public-school system is going to be overwhelmed.)
There are certainly debates to be engaged about the proper allocation of taxpayer-provided public resources to elementary and secondary education. That’s gone on for well over a century, and it’s going to continue long into the future — although, one hopes, on more rational legal ground because of Espinoza v. Montana. Those debates would be markedly improved, however, if everyone involved would stop using the prejudicial and distorting language of “public schools” and “private schools.” The proper terms, especially with reference to schools that serve poor children, are “state schools” and “independent schools.”
If anyone wants to continue labeling $50,000/year prep schools “private,” I’m not going to object too strenuously. But to lump together, under the dismissive rubric “private,” inner-city Catholic schools with substantial numbers of non-Catholic students and country-club schools with golf courses and riding stables reflects shoddy thinking. That shoddiness does not advance the public discussion about essential reforms in American elementary and secondary education. It does serve the interests of teachers’ unions and state educational bureaucracies, even as it puts further pressure on politicians afraid of pushing back against the state schools’ well-funded lobbies.
So, with gratitude to the Supreme Court justices who got it right in Espinoza v. Montana, the proper terms are “independent schools” and “state schools,” not “private schools” and “public schools.” If the Court changed its use of language in these matters, it might encourage everyone else involved to do so. Those who’ve long enjoyed a monopoly on the notion that theirs are the only schools serving a public purpose are not going to change easily. That’s no reason for the rest of us engaged in this debate to perpetuate a slovenly usage.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His 27th book, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, has just been published by Ignatius Press.