What Do We Mean By Public and Private Today?

In today’s rancorous schools debate, old distinctions no longer apply

What Do We Mean By Public and Private Today?

In today’s rancorous schools debate, old distinctions no longer apply



Anytime the hot-button issue of our schools is debated, sides are taken and lines are drawn in the sand. It’s the public school advocates versus those who favor privately-run charters, and the finger pointing begins. But that narrative misses a crucial point about our schools today.

In Philadelphia right now, one out of three children attends a public charter school—a school that is publicly funded and regulated but managed by a civic entity (the overwhelming majority of charter schools are nonprofits).

But the math is even more complex than the 1 out of 3 figure. The School District also has contract schools where major institutions like the University of Pennsylvania or The Franklin Institute run schools, and it has special select schools that you test into or apply to from anywhere in the city.

If you put the number of charters, special selects, and contract schools together, then the number of children that go to schools that are very different than the conventional District-run schools gets closer to about 55 percent. That means the District now embodies contending notions of what it means to be a public school, based on management autonomy or admissions selectivity.

Franklin Square Park is a triumph of public-civic-private partnership, owned by the city and leased to a nonprofit that raises funds for it. A smart education sector will think in the same way: How do we expand public use through similar arrangements?

The revolution in technology-aided education, where innovation is being applied and private capital is flowing, will further disrupt the conventional notion of a public school and a public district; not because of cyber schools but because of new instructional models and technologies. Those changes will create new opportunities for institutional collaboration and affiliation.

From flipped classrooms where online instruction at home is coupled with problem solving in class, to mobile devices that allow teachers to work with students progressing at different speeds, to the use of  electronic games as a learning tool with the kinds of incentives that work for young people, the world of teaching is becoming both more global and more personal at the same time.

The good news is that if it is used correctly, technology allows us to personalize education around different learning styles, putting another stake into the heart of an antiquated industrial system. This will challenge the value of a centralized district unable to keep up with new delivery systems.

We are entering a new era of learning where the craft of teaching will undergo change, there will be more options, and large districts will function as funders and regulators more than top-down managers. It will not be the end of big district governance, just a shift in what it means to govern.

We are in the midst of a  transformation from a system of vertical management to a more horizontal (and civic) form. This is all happening at a time when the education battles between charter advocates and district advocates are more toxic than ever.

In the long run it will be hard for schools not to adapt to these changes, particularly in large districts. But to do so there has to be the civic will to transcend old ground and consciously seek out the best innovators and performers, while defunding those that do not make the grade. And it has to be done with an eye toward increasing equity and access, not marginalizing those that are behind.

This shift in the meaning and management of the public sphere is an important part of remaking a great city: moving from an industrial corporate model of governance to a more flexible system of decentralized management and leadership.

You don’t have to look far to find a great example: Think of public spaces in Philadelphia. Some of the great new public spaces include Sister Cities Park, Franklin Square, the Porch at 30th Street and Dilworth Park.

None of those parks are managed directly by the public sector. They are public spaces in terms of access and ownership but they are managed by nonprofit organizations: The University District manages the Porch; the Center City District manages Sister Cities and Dilworth Park; and Historic Philadelphia manages Franklin Square.

Franklin Square is a triumph of public-civic-private partnership. One of the original five squares designated by William Penn, it is owned by the city, which leases it to nonprofit Historic Philadelphia, which in turn raised funds and brought in private vendors including a Stephen Starr restaurant.

The other spaces are also examples of smart collaboration across sectors, and all of them are doing what we want from a public space: enabling access to the broadest possible number of people for a variety of uses.

Public spaces no longer directly managed by the public sector are expanding public use, as measured by the number of people that visit and use the sites.  A smart education sector will think in the same way: How do we expand public use through a myriad of cross sector arrangements? How do we get the best of both centralized rule setting and decentralized management?

So the next time you get drawn into one of those arguments where public purpose and private initiative are posed as polar opposites, think again. The world is changing and those changes will force us to abandon conventional categories.

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