For the second year in a row, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was named the best public high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Though ranking any high school as the single best in the country is somewhat pointless, it is fairly clear that Jefferson is an exceptional high school where its students get an exceptional education. However, it is unclear that the high school is public. The school is administered by the Fairfax County Public Schools System. However, it uses selective admissions to create its student body.
That a school is administered by a public entity may lead some to conclude that a school is public. Indeed, one may argue that who pays the bills and who controls a school in the only determinant of whether a school is public or private. Certainly, that is how most determine whether a college is public or private. Maybe the same rule applies to schools at all level.
However, historically, the distinction between private schools and public schools has been that private schools choose their students while students (or their parents) choose public schools by moving to or continuing to live in a school’s district. That might seem to suggest that selective admissions is at odds with public education. However, some might fairly argue that as long as a student is not denied an education at his neighborhood school creating a county-wide public school with selective admissions that exists separate from the web of neighborhood schools is not inconsistent with public education. However, they may also concede that the county-wide public school more resembles a private school embedded in a public school system supported by public money than a neighborhood public school.
However, at the end of the day, whether a school resembles a public school or a private school may not matter as long as public school systems realize that their obligation is to provide superb educational experiences to all of their students. Surely there will always be opportunities for public school systems to create special schools that teach a particular curriculum to students with interests that are off the beaten path. However, that should not be an excuse to provide subpar neighborhood schools. Excellence can be achieved in purely public neighborhood schools if such excellence is demanded and rewarded. The hope is that we as a society will continue to demand excellence through neighborhood schools that are public through and through. Nonetheless, whatever the structure of the school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology deserves all the praise it can stand.