Required Reading: Public vs. Private

[Editor’s Note: We are happy to include an interview with Robert Gross about his new book Public vs. Private. In his book, Dr. Gross explores questions near and dear to the hearts of SAGLRROILYBYGTH: Private schools, public schools, religion, government, and the politics of education. His new book examines the early history of these questions and we’re delighted Dr. Gross has agreed to share some of his thoughts with us.]

1.) In the introduction to Public vs Private, you write,

American conceptions of public and private . . . are impossible to fully understand without placing education at the center of the regulatory state.

Could you please expand on that idea a little? Why is it so important to understand educational history in this area if we want to understand American concepts of “public” and “private?”

There are three main reasons that I think education needs to be placed at the center of our understanding of the history of the regulatory state. The first is simply that, by the early twentieth century, there was perhaps no other sphere of American life that was more heavily regulated. When focusing exclusively on private schools you see the scope of American market regulation in a way that is more hidden in other areas. States regulated almost the entirety of the private school sector: what classes they could teach, what credentials their teachers needed, what language they could speak in the classroom, and so forth. Private schools had to open their doors to inspectors and turn over their attendance rosters. And of course the state reached into the homes of private school parents—paying visits to them if their child was truant or not assigned to a schools.

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The second way that education matters to understanding American government power is that court cases about public regulation of private schools have served as major precedents to define the broader scope of market regulation over business. I discuss a range of major supreme court cases in the book—from Dartmouth College v. Woodward to Berea College v. Kentucky to Pierce v. Society of Sisters—that centered on state regulation of private schools, but that also had a tremendous impact on how state governments could regulate to private enterprise more generally. Private schools have thus frequently been the sites over our most important legal contestations over the role of state power.

Finally, I was struck when researching and writing the book how much state officials relied on private schools to accomplish a crucial public goal: of providing mass education at no cost to taxpayers. I don’t think we can understand American government without seeing how it often uses private corporations to achieve public ends—we see that in health care, of course, but it was very much there in the 19th century with schooling.

2.) In the era you focus on in Public vs. Private, religion and religious arguments played a huge role in debates about funding for schools. How were those earlier debates different from today’s fights about religion in public schools? How were they similar?

Religious arguments were indeed used to prevent the vast majority of (religious) private schools from receiving direct state funding. But we have to remember that Catholic school systems, in particular, benefited immensely from a range of financial subsidies, especially property tax exemptions. While this is not something I explicitly write about in the book, my sense is that religious arguments historically have been less successful in obtaining funds than broader, more secular claims from religious schools about the “quasi-public” nature of their work. For example, in the 19th century legislatures and courts allowed Catholic parochial schools to have property-tax exemptions not solely (or even chiefly) because they were religious institutions, but rather because they served an important “public” purpose of educating masses of children. You see a somewhat similar dynamic in the middle of the 20th century over whether private schools that engage in various forms of discrimination can maintain their tax-exempt status. Courts ruled that private schools excluding African Americans, for example, were violating an important area of public policy, and so had no constitutional protections, nor claims to a tax deduction, in doing so. In the Hobby Lobby era we may see a shift in this general trend, of course.

3.) At the heart of the story you tell is an idea that seems foreign to a lot of people today. Can you explain the ways some leading 19th-century school reformers considered all private education to be a threat? Why did they think private schools were dangerous to American liberty?

Horace Mann and other public school reformers wrote extensively in the middle of the nineteenth century about how public school systems not only would eliminate private schooling but should do so. Public schools, they argued, were created precisely to destroy the balkanized provision of education that had existed beforehand—where Americans attended schools on the basis of their religious denomination, their class, or their ethnic heritage. Private schools thus represented an inherent challenge to the public school’s ability to be the assimilationist institution their founders envisioned. And because the vast majority of private schools by the late nineteenth century were run by Catholic organizations and, often, immigrant Catholics, they became enmeshed in deeper American traditions of anti-Catholicism and nativism.

There were a variety of other arguments for why private schools were seen as threatening that I think are worth mentioning as well. Many state public school leaders used economic arguments to suggest that private schools were inefficient, that schooling itself was a “natural monopoly” best operated by the government, without private competition—similar to how the government was increasingly providing other public utilities like water, gas, rail transportation, and so forth.

4.) What do you wish Betsy Devos knew about the history of the line between public and private schools?

I cannot speak to what Secretary Devos knows or does not know, but there is an important lesson in this book that I would want any public official to understand. The first is that we spend too much time in our debates about educational policy over whether one “supports” charter schools, voucher programs, school choice, or doesn’t support these initiatives. I think we would be better off if we talked about school choice in less Manichean terms, and instead posed the question that the communities in Public vs. Private had to contend with: “If we have school choice, how do we want to regulate it?” To what standards should we hold schools that receive public subsidies but are privately governed? How should we hold them accountable? Public regulation, as I argue in the book, is what allowed us to have robust school choice in the first place a century ago, and yet too often we ignore it in our contemporary debates.

Author bio: Robert N. Gross is a history teacher and assistant academic dean at Sidwell Friends School. He holds a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and writes about the social and educational history of the United States.

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