August 29 2013

Blame Monopolies—Not Private School Moms and Dads—for Bad Public Schools

Vicki E. Alger

Who’s to blame for crummy public schools? Private school parents, that’s who according to Slate Magazine’s Allison Benedikt.

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

Wanting the best for your child? Pretty bad indeed!

Perhaps we should notify folks like President Obama, hundreds of Members of Congress, and Matt Damon, so they can pull their children from their current private schools and put them in DC Public Schools or Los Angeles public schools.

Or maybe we should rescind private schools scholarships from the nearly 250,000 students nationwide (mostly low-income and minority children) who are currently benefiting from more than 30 parental choice programs across the country.

Benedikt suggests private school parents and students should be more like her and her parents. She admits that her parents simply sent her to the nearest public school and really didn’t get too involved. She admits her public schooling was “shoddy.” The one book she said she read in school had less of an impact on her than, “Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house…”

Benedikt insists in spite of her experience she turned out just fine, even landing a job at Slate. So it’s seems her “essential institution” wasn’t so essential in her life after all. Yet for some reason we must still revere the public schooling system to the point of sacrificing our children to it. As Benedikt explains:

But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations.

Benedikt admits she’s no education policy wonk, just “judgmental.” Well, yours truly is a longtime wonk, and she’s happy to get pretty judgmental herself when people in journalistic type positions perpetuate falsehoods instead of well-established (and easily accessible) facts that all demonstrate bad public schools are not the result of private school students. Here are just a few.

Private school enrollments have historically amounted to around 10 percent of K-12 school enrollments. Benedikt would have us believe that somehow one private school student is to blame for the poor public schooling of his or her nine counterparts. This is ludicrous.

Our country’s public schooling system has had a near monopoly over education for generations already. Still, a majority of American public school eighth graders who are not poor (56 percent) do not score proficient in reading. A majority of non-poor public school eighth graders (53 percent) are also not proficient in math. For students who are poor, less than one in five public school eighth graders are proficient in reading or math.

Think public schools don’t have enough money? Think again. The official U.S. Department of Education national average per pupil funding amount is well over $13,000. Detailed analyses find it’s actually much higher. Los Angeles district public schools spend $25,000 per student. (See p. 7) DC public schools spend even more at $28,000 per student, along with New York area schools, which spend $26,900 per student (See pp. 8 and 10).

In contrast, private school tuition averages less than $8,600, and more than 90 percent offer tuition discounts. And, let’s not forget that private school parents pay twice for schooling. First, taxes that support public schools their children don’t attend; and second, out-of-pocket tuition for schools their children do attend.

Benedikt also seems to assume that only rich kids go to private schools. These students would benefit from a little diversity, and so would public school students. Trouble is the vast majority of affluent Americans across racial sub-groups send their children to public schools, not private schools.

Fully 85 percent of all American families earning $75,000 or more (the Census Bureau’s highest income bracket) send their children to public schools, compared to just 11 percent who send their children to private schools. Closer to 90 percent of wealthier Hispanic and African American families send their children public schools, compared to less than 5 percent who send their children to private schools. (Author’s percentages based on data from Table 8)

But isn’t Benedikt right to want more integrated schools? In a pluralistic society it makes sense that children come to appreciate people from all walks of life. Neither forcing children into schools based on where their parents can afford to live, nor busing them hither and yon to satisfy some abstract vision of diversity has achieved that goal.

Rigorous research has long shown that private schools—especially those participating in parental choice programs—are more integrated and better reflect the communities where they are located. (See pp. 19-21).

Benedikt concludes that all parents want the same thing:

Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it.

I couldn’t agree more. But good schools aren’t the result of force. They come from the freedom to choose. That's what we should be fighting for.

Once students no longer represent a captive clientele, schools have to compete to attract and retain them—along with their education dollars. Hundreds of scientific analyses over the past several decades have documented the benefits of competition to public schools and students—including research from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Harvard University, and elsewhere. Benefits include improved student achievement and graduation rates, along with higher teacher salaries and smaller class sizes—all without having to spend more.

Regardless of their incomes or addresses all parents should have the freedom to choose the schools they—not people who write for Slate—think are best.

 

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