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What is Public Education?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Public education typically refers to education that is state or province or nationally funded and provided to students free of charge. This type of education is often mandated by law for students under a certain age or who have not yet completed a satisfactory level of education. Schools in this type of educational system are often funded by state or province or federal governments, frequently through money raised via taxes. Public education is not always synonymous with state education or state schools, however, and many countries may use different terms in reference to state-sponsored education.

In general, public education typically refers to two separate yet related concepts, which are publicly available education and publicly sponsored education. Publicly available education simply refers to any type of education or schooling that is available to the general public. This may not only be available to the public, but may also be mandatory to ensure that the citizens of a country are well educated and able to exist as productive members of society. Since this type of public education is often mandatory, it is also often paid for by the government, either at a federal or lower level or sometimes both.

These publicly funded or sponsored forms of education are also generally referred to as public education, though they need not always be publicly available. For example, a school could be partially funded by public money, either directly from the government or through a voucher system, and still remain private in the sense that the school is able to choose students who will be accepted at the school. A voucher system allows parents of students to choose where the money that would be provided by the government to pay for schooling goes, allowing public funds to be used to pay for private education.

In the US and many other countries, public education is often used synonymously with the idea of state-sponsored education. States within the US often fund school districts and schools, though federal money is frequently involved in funding as well. This allows states to control schooling in certain ways, by setting specific criteria and handling the hiring of teachers, while also giving the federal government influence in larger ways.

Other countries such as the UK, however, can use the term “public education” to refer to what is commonly considered private education in the US. In those countries, the term “state school” or “state education” often refers to publicly sponsored education, and public schools can be synonymous with private schools. In general, however, public education typically refers to any type of education that is generally available to the public, and often paid for by public funding through taxes and other government initiatives.

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