Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

On "government schools"

A few days ago, in a post that took notice of the recently announced education-funding collaboration between a great mayor (Cory Booker), a great governor (Chris Christie), and a really smart, young, entrepreneur (Mark Zuckerberg), I used the term "government schools" to refer to what are more often referred to as "public schools."  Some of those who commented on the post were curious about, or critical of, my use of the term.  And, I tried to say why I think it is appropriate.

Over at the "Distinctly Catholic" blog, Michael Sean Winters agrees with me "that the government is in the service of the public, that the society is bigger and broader than the government, that all of us, not just those in government, have a responsibility to improve schools."  He worries, though, that my use of the term might be perceived as consonant with a simplistic (and, I think, un-Catholic) anti-government libertarianism.

The worry is a fair one.  So, for what it's worth, I want to be clear about why I used the term "government schools", and why I think it is important to (now and then) use it.  It is not because I regard government as evil or alien, or because I believe "government" is, necessarily, an epithet.  I do feel strongly, though, that the schools-in-question ought not to be able to co-opt the term “public”.  It is important -- now and again, anyway -- to deny to the public-education establishment the moral credibility that comes with the term “public”.  The schools-in-question are (too often) badly serving the public, they are (to often) not meaningfully operated or controlled by, or accountable to, the public, and those for whose benefit they are (too often) being run currently do not really care all that much about the public.  In my view, "private" schools -- and I'm thinking particularly of Catholic schools -- are doing a better job at what the public should (and, for the most part, does) want education to do.  This is (one reason) why I think that it is entirely appropriate for the work of Catholic schools to be supported with public funds.

My view is not, and does not reflect, a knee-jerk anti-government-ism.  I believe in the res publica, and understand the importance of political authority and of the work of the political community.  The schools-in-question, though, have (too often) become a beast, a "blob."  They do not (generally speaking) deserve the term “public” – a term that, for me, is not an epithet.  The term is used by the public-education establishment for rhetorical advantage, as if Catholic and other private schools were not, in fact, serving the “public” (for less money, and better).


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In my experience, use of the term "government schools" in the way used by Garnett is fairly common and is not used in a derogatory way.

Posted by: Chris D | Sep 30, 2010 11:03:23 AM


If I understand you correctly, you say that these schools should be called “government” schools because these schools operate so poorly, are so mismanaged and so misguided, and so unresponsive that they do not merit the “moral credibility” of the term “public”; they deserve to be called “government”. And yet you also say you do not believe that “government” is an epithet!

This is inconsistent. If the term “government” is used to “deny moral credibility” then it becomes an epithet. QED. If the problems you mentioned are consistent with “government” instead of “public” then it’s hard to see how the term does not imply all manner of “badness” and how that does not reflect a deep disrespect for government. If the schools were working well, would your objection to using the term “public” be withdrawn?

My fundamental problem is that the public is to blame for these problems, so why not hold them accountable? These schools are run using our money, administered by officials we chose, and encountering problems the public is unwilling to face or deal with. The problem is not “government”; it is us. We are the Masters, they are the servants; the fault is ours.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 11:36:43 AM

It is easier said than done, given the bureaucratic and other givens, to "hold them accountable." I am quite sure that most taxpayers and parents would like to, but feel (probably correctly) that they cannot. Your first sentence is a cute move, but it does not, actually, capture what I said. I said that the schools do not really deserve the term "public" for those reasons. *Some* other word is necessary, and government seems the most accurate. So, Q-E-not-D.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 30, 2010 11:40:10 AM


Actually, my QED is valid, since it applies to your use of the word “government” as an epithet. If *some* other word is necessary, why not use the right word? Why not use “failed” or “failing”? Those are exactly correct. But you used “government” as a euphemism for these terms, and for lack of “moral credibility” (your term): therefore you understand “government” as a term indicating “badness”, and used it, not precisely for what “government” actually means, but imprecisely to convey an impression of badness. You used it as an epithet. QED. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so, it’s just inconsistent to do it and then deny doing it; especially in the same comment. I only persist on this point because your denial is not plausible and has implications to the reliability of the rest of your comments. If you hate “government” just say so and move on. We won’t come after you with pitch-forks.

My first sentence may be “cute”; but it accurately reports your comments; that the schools in question “do not really deserve the term "public" for those reasons”; that they lack “moral credibility”. It’s a cute and accurate summary of your point. Cute is not bad, I’m good with that.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 12:13:16 PM

MoJ has comments now. Who knew?

But to the point, this vocabulary is, to the best of my understanding, entirely commonplace everywhere else in the world. In fact the British are a perpetual source of confusion to American readers by calling their non-government-operated schools "public."

Furthermore, Prof. Garnett's advocacy of the term "government"---or at least the appropriateness of the term itself---reflects more than a view of the state as an epithet. First of all, the term is accurate, which really ought to be the sine qua non of any terminology. The government runs these schools. Second, points to reasons why the term "public" is inadequate. Because some term is necessary to designate these schools, "government," a common and accurate description, is then proffered as a substitute.

So how the syllogism actually goes is thus:
1. The term "public school" implies a certain degree of effectiveness and trustworthiness.
2. The government operates public schools.
3. Things operated by the government are accurately described as "government such and such."
4. State schools do not, generally speaking, tend to display the qualities that #1 indicates they should have.
5. Therefore, they should be called something else.
6. Therefore, the term "government schools" is appropriate, quod erat demonstrandum.

Posted by: Titus | Sep 30, 2010 12:32:40 PM

I assume that "David" is, in this context, "Rick." In any event, I think it is accurate and appropriate to call schools-run-by-the-government "government schools", and that to do so is not necessarily to treat "government" as an epithet. True, I think the term "public" should be earned, and not follow automatically upon government ownership and operation. I did *not* use "government" as a euphemism for the terms you mention but, again, as an accurate replacement term for "public." I'm not sure why you "persist"; in any event, my account is not only "plausible" (unless one has, for some reasoned, determined to believe unmovably something else) but true.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Sep 30, 2010 1:07:33 PM

Rick, you are correct, I meant Rick, not David.

Titus, your deduction may be valid, but it’s unsound. Deductions preserve the truth of their premises, but do not establish their truth. Your #1 (premise) appears to be a conclusion from an unshown syllogism. It is only a conclusory comment (opinion) and not demonstrated. Since #1 is undemonstrated, #4 (which follows from #1 and is badly formed, introducing a term not used previously: “state schools”) is therefore undemonstrated also. 5 & 6 follow from 4, so their truth is also undemonstrated. Therefore the syllogism’s soundness depends on the truth of the premise (#1) which is undemonstrated.

Regarding “the term is accurate”. So is “public”.
Regarding “…which really ought to be the sine qua non of any terminology.” If the discussion was about “who runs these schools” the term would be unobjectionable, but the context is “how do we refer to failing/failed public schools?"
Regarding “The government runs these schools.” This also means they are “public schools” (at least here in the States.)

Regarding “Because some term is necessary to designate these schools, "government," a common and accurate description, is then proffered as a substitute.” Government is only accurate as to who runs the schools, and is no more accurate than calling them “public”. Since we are talking about failing/failed public schools, we do not need to search for a term to designate them: FAILED schools is accurate and elegantly precise.

Here is my shot at this:

In the United States:

1. The term "public school" indicates public ownership and responsibility for the indicated schools.
2. The government operates all institutions properly described as “public”.
3. Schools are institutions.
4. THEREFORE the Government operates “public schools”.
5. Institutions operated by the Government are properly described as “government” institutions.
6. THEREFORE “public school” and “government school” properly describe the same schools.
7. Some “public” institutions are operated effectively and successfully.
8. THEREFORE some Government institutions are operated effectively and successfully.
9. Ownership, operation, and responsibility attach regardless of the success or failures of the institution.
10. THEREFORE describing an institution as “public” or “government” demonstrates nothing about whether the institution is successful.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 1:20:40 PM

Rick, your account is plausible and true if we are discussing who owns and operates “public schools”. But the schools we are discussing are distinguished by being failed public schools. Perhaps in the UK, your terminology is understood to carry no particular judgment, but here in the States, it does; especially because here all “public” schools are operated by and for the public, the government merely being the agent of the public which has been tasked with running these public schools.

I persist because the term is not neutral, certainly not in the States, and not even in the UK I think. If we are talking about failed schools, why call them something other than failed schools? What is the merit in that? Why call a rose by another name? What is gained when clarity is lost?

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 1:36:00 PM

"Rick, you are correct, I meant Rick, not David."

People are ALWAYS getting us mixed up.

Posted by: David Nickol | Sep 30, 2010 1:42:17 PM

It must be your hair or something.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 1:57:09 PM

I will admit, Sean, that my first premise is itself unproved conclusion. I didn't think the connotations of the word "public" were themselves a matter of contention, so I admittedly simply accepted that factual allegation as true. I suppose that works better on a motion to dismiss.

Likewise, your syllogism is valid, but I think not entirely on point. I believe Prof. Garnett's thrust is that those schools that are failing ruin the "public" moniker for all schools. Maybe I missed part of his argument, but I didn't understand him to say that some state-operated schools should be denominated "public" and others "government" based on their respective performances.

So I think if my original syllogism were cleaned up a bit, it would more accurately reflect the argument. For instance, picking up in the middle:

4. Many public schools do not display characteristics concomitant with their name.
5. The name of a class of things should reflect the prevailing qualities of the members of the class.
5. Therefore, the term "public school" is not an appropriate name for this class of schools.
6. If the prevailing name of a class of things becomes inappropriate, a new name should be designated from among appropriate descriptors.
7. Therefore, "government schools" is an appropriate designation for such schools.

I'm sure that could be improved upon as well. As much as I wish all disputes between attorneys could be settled using syllogisms, I think my chance of persuading the partners at my firm or the local judiciary are quite low. So I don't get the practice I would like.

Posted by: Titus | Sep 30, 2010 2:29:18 PM


If Rick’s point is that “those schools that are failing ruin the "public" moniker for all schools” then a great deal of heat could have been avoided if he just said that. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed my experiments in Epistemology!

What remains unexplained is why calling failing schools “government” schools is preferable to calling them what they are: “failing schools”. Your suggestion also would indicate that Rick believes government is an appropriate moniker for things with “ruined monikers”; which brings me back to my observation that Rick’s argument utilizes “government” as a disparaging epithet.

With regard to your revised syllogism, your first item #5 (there are two. We both need editors!) is problematic: if the prevailing qualities of “public schools” is “failing” then the term “public schools” is an appropriate name for failing schools since that is the prevailing quality of the class. (Now I’m dizzy.) And #7 still does not follow from any preceding steps.

I am only a lowly law student, so I probably get more practice at this than you. I’ll cop to the potential advantage.

BTW, I’ve added to my syllogism the following steps:

11. Some “public” / “government” schools are operated effectively and successfully.
12. THEREFORE the terms “public” and “government” do not properly indicate failure (also from 4 and 7, supra).
13. An epithet is a “disparaging or abusive word or phrase, or a characterizing word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing”
14. Describing an institution as “failed” is disparaging.
15. The words “public” and “government” do not mean “failure” or “failed”.
16. THEREFORE the word “government” cannot be properly used as an epithet (a characterizing word) for “failure” or “failed”.
17. We need a term that properly and uniquely designates failing schools.
18. Some failing schools are private schools not operated by the government on behalf of the public.
19. THEREFORE some failing schools are neither “public” nor “government” schools.
20. THEREFORE the proper term that uniquely designates failing schools is neither “public” nor “government”.
21. THEREFORE another term (other than “public” or “government”) must be found that properly and uniquely designates failing schools.

I suggest “failed” or “failing”.

sean s.

Posted by: sean samis | Sep 30, 2010 3:00:45 PM

For what it's worth, when I read the term "government schools", I thought it was being used pejoratively. Sort of like "government cheese."

Posted by: DFoley | Sep 30, 2010 3:25:19 PM