Beware: “Government Schools”

What’s the difference between a “government school” and a “public school?”

It seems a “government school” is one calculated to impose a sinister ideology of sloth, poor manners, high spending, and bestial morality on its students.

At least, that’s what reading today’s conservative headlines would lead one to believe.

Anyone who browses certain conservative writers and activists will soon notice this ubiquitous usage.  Again and again, we read about “government schools” instead of about “public schools.”

For example, pundit James Ostrowski warns readers to pull their children out of “government schools.”  There’s nothing more important if readers want to “save America, not to mention your own kids.  Government schools,” Ostrowksi warns,

Were not established out of any dire need for them but rather for a variety of crass religious, political and economic motives.  They were not immaculately conceived but rather were born out of a toxic stew of religious absolutism, Prussian militarism, utopian socialist leveling, special interest greed and power lust.

It is not only the history of “government schools” that troubles Ostrowski.  Today’s government schools, he insists, are “loaded with crime, bullying, drugs and sexual promiscuity.  They indoctrinate students into a false view of American history, one that is invariably favorable to ever-expanding government.”

Ostrowski’s jeremiad may sound far-fetched to some readers, but his strident anti-public-school-ism is widely shared among conservative commentators.

“Government schools” force students to act like slaves, we read.

“Government schools” expose children to drugs, sex, and even early deaths, we read.

It seems the phrase “public school” still retains too many positive connotations to suit the taste of some commentators.  In order to convince readers of the terrors of public education, many conservative activists seem to have adopted the label “government schools” instead.  With this flip of a rhetorical switch, those innocent red schoolhouses on the hill have been replaced by gloomy outposts of centralizing overreach.  “Government” schools carry all the terrifying baggage among some conservatives of any other government program.  If schools are outposts of the government, then they must be outposts of the regime to strip Americans of their traditional religion, their ferocious independence, and their hard-earned tax money.

I’ve been intrigued by this common rhetorical switch among conservatives lately.  It is a powerful yet simple change.  After all, no one can gainsay the fact that public schools are, indeed, government institutions.  But if we think of them as “public,” they seem to belong to us all.  If we think of them as the “government,” then we can rally Tea Party angst and energy to reject them.

The historian in me grew curious to track back this change in conservative school talk.  I looked back through all my overstuffed files and reading notes.

The earliest usage I could find traced back to the influential conservative pundit Sam Blumenfeld.  Blumenfeld wielded significant influence in the 1980s.  My research in the National Archives revealed that Blumenfeld’s work was promoted by the highest levels of William J. Bennett’s Education Department.

It was Blumenfeld that offered the earliest example I could uncover of calling public schools “government” schools.

In his 1981 book Is Public Education Necessary?  Blumenfeld warned that public schools did not live up to their own positive reputation.  Public schools did not work to promote democracy.  They did not function as religious and ideologically neutral institutions.  They did not wisely use public money.  They did not hire quality teachers.  In short, public schools, Blumenfeld argued, did not deserve their unassailed reputation as necessary governmental institutions.

In effect, Blumenfeld insisted, a student going to public school “emerges indoctrinated in a body of secular values as if he had gone to a sort of government parochial school.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that today’s conservative pundits are all deriving their use of the term “government school” directly from Sam Blumenfeld.  But his use was the earliest I could find.  My hunch is that Blumenfeld’s considerable influence among conservative educational activists did a great deal to promote the term’s widespread popularity today.



Leave a comment


  1. I got the term from the late, great Marshall Fritz. I’m not a conservative BTW.

    • Thanks for the info and the clarification. Sorry for the mis-characterization. For readers: Mr. Ostrowski clearly stated this on his blog. As he wrote:

      Unlike some “libertarians,” I am not a flack for big business or the Republican Party. I do not hesitate to praise leftists when they’re right and I’ll defend conservatives even when they hoist themselves on their own petard.

  2. Now, possibly Marshall picked up the term from Blumenthal. Maybe, maybe not.

  1. Private Schools Are Only for Bad People | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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