Do Public Schools Serve Everyone?

Colleen Hroncich

One of the most prevalent claims by opponents of school choice is that “public schools serve everyone.” This is asserted on social media, in commentaries, on yard signs, and even in Change​.org petitions. But it’s easy to see that the claim isn’t true.

For starters, it defies logic to think one provider of any service could “serve everyone”—or at least, serve everyone well. This is especially true when it comes to education given the vast range of needs and wants among children and families.

From a purely educational perspective, children have different abilities and aptitudes. They may prefer different environments, with some thriving in a more structured setting while others flourish with more freedom. And parents have diverse values, goals, and priorities. No wonder that even in the top-ranked district in any state, many parents choose other options for their children. It’s unlikely they would pay twice for education—once in school taxes and again in tuition—if their assigned school was serving their children well.

For families who can’t afford to pay twice for education, the situation can be much more dire. For example, Project Baltimore found that 13 Baltimore high schools didn’t have a single student score proficient or better on the 2023 state math test. Are these public schools really serving everyone?

For more evidence that public schools don’t serve everyone, we can look to stories of parents who have been arrested for sending their children to a better public school than the one they’ve been assigned to based on their address.

In 2011, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted of two felony charges and sentenced to 10 days in jail plus three years of probation. Her crime? Using her dad’s home address to enroll her daughters in a public school that was safer than their assigned school. According to Williams-Bolar, her dad helped raise her kids, and they spent a lot of time there, so she didn’t think using his address would be a problem. But the district accused her of stealing education. John Kasich, Ohio governor at the time, reduced her convictions to misdemeanors.

Pennsylvania parents Hamlet and Olesia Garcia were similarly charged with stealing education in 2012. The Garcias enrolled their daughter in Pine Hill Elementary in the Lower Moreland Township School District, listing Olesia Garcia’s father’s house as her residence. But district officials received word that the family lived in the Philadelphia school district and started investigating. The Garcias said their daughter lived in her grandfather’s house for eight months so they let her finish the school year at Pine Hill after moving back to their Philadelphia home that was only a mile from the school. Prosecutors disputed this and said the family never lived in Lower Moreland. In 2014, to avoid a potential felony conviction and jail time, Hamlet Garcia agreed to a plea deal where he admitted to lying about his daughter’s address and reimbursed the district almost $11,000 in tuition.

While these stories are particularly shocking, districts across the country regularly crack down on parents who are thought to be illegally sending their children to public schools. Last year, St. Louis Public Radio investigated local districts after learning about aggressive enforcement—including home visits and searches—against “educational larceny” in the Hazelwood School District. Residency investigations in Hazelwood have quadrupled since the 2019–20 school year, with most finding no violation.

According to a 2023 report by Available to All, a watchdog group that aims to increase access to the best public schools, “In at least 24 states, parents or guardians who use an address that is not their residence to enroll their children in school can be criminally prosecuted, resulting in steep fines and even jail sentences.”

In short, as many parents have found, it is profoundly inaccurate to say, “public schools serve everyone.” What about the argument on the flip side that private schools don’t serve everyone? It’s absolutely true. No individual private school can serve everyone—just as no public school can. But in the private sector, no provider claims to do that.

There is tremendous diversity among private educational providers, including traditional private schools, microschools that may serve just a handful of students, hybrid schools that include in-person and at-home learning days, and co-ops that support homeschoolers. And even among these different models, there is a lot of variety. There are religious and secular options. Some follow educational philosophies like Montessori, Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, unschooling, or classical—or a mixture of several.

The spread of school choice programs that allow state education funds to follow students to a variety of educational options is helping families across the income spectrum access these diverse learning opportunities. While vouchers and tax credit scholarships are typically only for traditional private school tuition, education savings accounts and individual tax credits can offset the cost of many different educational expenses, giving parents a greater chance to customize their children’s learning experience.

No school, public or private, can serve everyone—just as no restaurant, grocery store, doctor, or car dealership can. Fortunately, policymakers are increasingly recognizing that simple fact and expanding educational opportunities by enacting school choice programs. The best way to “serve everyone” is to enable each individual student to have options.