How Should We Talk About Schools?

As we have talked with people about education, we have found that words can sometimes drive people apart before they have even begun to really talk. We have found that a significant part of the education discussion (which honestly feels more like an argument sometimes) involves people using the same words in different ways.  This means that although we might actually agree, our different use of terms makes it seem like we disagree!

Yet, as we saw in the previous FAQ, for diverse children to flourish they need a diversity of schools, which requires that everyone understand the different types of schools that exist and what makes them different.

There are plenty of names given to various types of schools: charter schools, religious schools, and district schools (including feeder schools and magnet schools). And that is just to name a few! In addition to these different names, people have different ideas about what “public” means and about how schools are funded. All this only adds to the confusion rather that helping clarify what we mean.

As Christians Investing in Education, we think it is most helpful to instead make a clear distinction between schools based on accountability. Who is directly accountable for the school and how it operates? Put differently, who is in charge?

We use the terms “government-run schools” and “independent schools” because we believe this language provides more clarity. Some schools are directly accountable to and operated by the government, whether at the local level (a district school board) or at the state level (through the state board of education as in the case of charter schools). Other schools are operated independently by non-profits, religious organizations, or other kinds of organizations and are accountable to the parents, teachers, and founding organization for example.

Thus, the focus is on who is directly accountable for the education being provided. The focus is on whether it is the government through the school district or education department, some type of organization like a non-profit, or parents – directly – in the case of home schooling.

Why is this distinction on accountability a more helpful way of understanding different types of schools and the wider education system?

This distinction is helpful because identifying who is accountable helps clarify who is responsible. For example, government-run schools are accountable to the local school board and the state board of education.  This will involve more standardization and uniformity between schools to ensure that the government is treating each school it operates similarly. Key decisions about how the school runs will be made by the appropriate government official for that local district or by the government official for the entire state. So in areas where accountability and responsibility in education should be uniform and identical the system will likely function well.

Independent schools, on the other hand, have more flexibility in operation because they are distinct community organizations that are accountable to the parents, children, teachers and the organization they serve, rather than directly to the government.

It is important to note here that while independent schools are not directly accountable to government for how they operate, independent schools are still accountable to government.  Government is rightly concerned with all schools.

Government’s role resides not in how independent schools operate but in setting out criteria they must meet in order to be considered schools.  Government’s role involves recognizing independent schools as schools. It should also be concerned with ensuring equity of education – that every parent and child has the opportunity to express their educational diversity.

In closing, there is a strong argument to be made for saying that the “public education system” has two dimensions: government schools and independent schools.  All schools should allow educational diversity to flourish, and the distinction comes not in the shared goal of education diversity, but in the level of decision-making authority these schools have to achieve this goal.

Government’s calling to pursue educational diversity is far more achievable when it supports both government-run schools and independent schools to meet the diverse needs of students. Only then will all families and children be able to access the quality education they both need and deserve.

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