There is more to the “public” part of public schools than merely government funding. It denotes a population with a common interest. We are not merely a collection of individuals, workers, consumers, or taxpayers. The concept of citizens and the public are closely aligned. Public education isn’t important merely because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public. The school’s role as a public institution is something that often gets left out or ignored when the subject of “school choice” and vouchers are brought up. Disregard of the public school’s role in creating the public is a fundamental flaw in the “money-follows-the-child” model of funding education.
Consider other institutions that help form the public such as parks and libraries: Parks give all of us green space and places to come together where we can interact with others in the community. They help define and shape the look and feel of communities and neighborhoods; they provide environmental, aesthetic, and recreational benefits to citizens; they help enhance property values; and they attract people to the community. A lot of that value would be destroyed if lawmakers decided to divert park money to individual citizens so they could spend it on backyard swing set projects, bowling alleys, and green space at their churches. You can expect proponents of such an idea would market it as “recreational choice.” Who doesn’t like choice?! Even if money was going to citizens who never used the parks in the first place to fund projects they had previously funded out of their own pockets, proponents would divide up the cost-per-citizen and claim that “recreational choice” is saving us money.
Similarly libraries are more than just books, videos, and computers. They are places where patrons can come together face to face, often for the purpose of engaging in civil discourse. Libraries help build communities. Haves and have-nots have access to information and librarians who can assist in navigating that information. Local libraries maintain collections specific to the community. They promote democratic values and are often housed in architecture that is notable in its own right. The public library was an American innovation. As David Morris noted, “Europeans had subscription libraries for 100 years before the United States was born. But in April 1833, the good citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire created a radically new concept—a public library.” “Media choice vouchers” that citizens could spend on books and videos at Amazon or at their church libraries wouldn’t be the same. Maybe citizens could get access to the same books and videos. Perhaps they could get more of them at a cheaper rate. But the public would, nevertheless, be diminished.
The more we turn ourselves from members of the public into an atomized collection of individuals, the weaker our communities and democratic institutions become. Dressing up these decisions in the language of “choice” does not change this fact.