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Private Schools

January 31st, 2006

I was surprised to discover that in over 1600 posts, I had not dedicated one to public and private schools and the whole voucher matter. Or at least not that my search engine can detect.

I cannot understand the strange attraction to universal private schools and the desire to dismantle or discount the public school system. It seems so obvious that such a plan would not work. I can only assume that the apparent success of a few private schools just dazzles many who do not think the whole thing through.

In the 60’s, we knew different. It was the space age, and we were funding education well. We encouraged kids (well, at least boys) to study math and science. We built good college systems–California had a great one, still good today, but deteriorating. In the 70’s, people started grouching about property taxes, Prop 13 got passed, and things went downhill from there. I still recall hearing an educator back then predict that Prop 13 would be the beginning of the end.

It also revolts me as to how right-wingers can be all about giving huge amounts of money in the form of tax breaks to rich people and corporations as if that were the cure to everything, and then squeal about how education problems can’t be solved by “throwing money” at them. Somehow, paying a corporate executive $50 million a year instead of $20 million a year will solve all our problems, but the principle apparently never applies when it comes to teachers’ salaries. And somehow, our economy can be fixed by giving already-flush oil companies billions of dollars in new tax breaks, but when schools can’t afford to buy textbooks for their students, “throwing money at them,” as if it would only go to waste, is never a solution. Clearly, that doesn’t track. And just as clearly, education must be funded far better than it is. And even more clearly, to me at least, is the fact that private schools and vouchers simply will not work.

The most apparent reasons include the illusion of success and the availability of resources. Let’s talk about illusion first. Private schools are regarded as superior. We all feel a touch of awe if someone says they went to a private school, especially one of the expensive ones. Different attitudes apply to parochial private schools, but those aren’t the ones we usually imagine when we hear the words “private school.” So how do these schools get to be so successful? One of the major reasons is the fact that they can screen their students. They have waiting lists a mile long. They can pick and choose who they take in. They can accept the best and the brightest, the most promising kids. Which means that the fact that kids in private schools perform better on average is a self-fulfilling image. It’s a matter of input and output: you admit only smart kids, and smart kids will come out. Surprise!

In fact, a recent government study (don’t know how Bush let this one slip through) found that once you factor out the artificial weeding of poorer students at private and charter schools, kids at public schools actually perform better than at private schools. Kevin Drum has a good chart showing the results, taken directly from the study (PDF file).

But it’s not just admitting the good, it’s also keeping out the bad and the costly. Private schools are not required to take difficult cases. Kids with problems. Kids with attitude. Kids with special needs. Kids with disabilities. Kids that the public schools have no choice to take. These kids require special attention, and they can wind up costing a lot of money. Most private schools simply reject them, which increases their own productivity while burdening public schools. Not because they teach better, but because they get to pick the best and easiest to teach.

Which leads us to resources. Private schools can charge a lot of money. Even parochial schools, which are cheaper, often depend on church staffs, which cuts costs for them by large amounts. By weeding out the needful and disruptive kids, these schools can avoid many of the costs that, in the end, must be borne by someone else. Furthermore, public schools are weighted down by politicians, who sometimes use the school system as a cash register, or burden the schools with expensive and often useless mandates; private schools can start clean, negotiate much tighter contracts and policies, and save a lot of money that way. And the private schools can hire better teachers.

Now, those resources sound pretty real, no illusions. So why not have all schools go private? The answer is simple: those resources are both artificially supported and they are severely limited. There are only X number of people who can pay those kinds of fees; few families can support those costs. There are only X number of the best teachers; try to expand and you lower their quality. And if you go universal, then the artificial supports created by accepting only the best kids disappear.

Trying to apply the benefits of private schools to all students is like trying to give all workers an above-average salary. It is simply mathematically impossible.

Those are the quick points, the ones that are immediately apparent to me. I don’t understand why most people don’t see them.

From there, you can predict what would happen if conservatives got their way and we started handing out vouchers nationwide. The first effect would be tied to the factor of availability: private schools are already swamped. If the government suddenly announced that they would make billions of dollars of government vouchers open to everyone, there would be few established private schools that could take any students, much less a few million of them. Suddenly you would have millions of parents trying to put their kids into private schools, and no schools with openings. As a result, thousands of new “private schools” would open up nationwide as entrepreneurs scrambled to take those billions out of the hands of parents. These schools would likely not be held to any standards, and as a result of that, profit-taking, and overnight industry-building, their average quality would be poor, much poorer than public schools today. Unlike most people imagine, we would never be able to take the most prestigious private schools and clone them everywhere.

Another problem would be costs: vouchers would rarely, if ever, pay the entire bill. Few private schools provide full education for the amount the government will be willing to pay, which means that many families with little income will be forced to pay thousands of dollars per year per child for a few decades in order to participate. As time goes on, that will only get worse as people want more tax cuts and inflation cuts into the budgets.

Public schools, in the meantime, would find themselves in dire straits: they would be forced to deal with the lowest-scoring, most expensive and most problematic students. To add insult to injury, public schools would also have their budgets slashed mercilessly because of the lowered number of students. As a result, the students who need the most help would be abandoned to a public gutted school system without the resources to serve them. However, the courts might rule that any private school that takes government money must take in any child that applies. If that happens, then the advantages of private schools will be even further reduced, and the costs higher.

Meanwhile, market forces would dominate the private school sector. The schools that do a decent job teaching children would find themselves in high demand. As a result, they would raise their prices. Which means that in addition to paying taxes to fund the vouchers in the first place, parents would have to pay a premium to get their kids into a school that comes close even to today’s public school standards. This would fuel a class divide, with upper-class and upper-middle class parents being able to get a decent education for their kids, while lower-middle class and poorer families are left in the cold, having to choose either a substandard private school, or send their kids back to a decimated and hellish public school system.

There are all kinds of other problems that would arise as well. Either the private schools would go unregulated (and as is true with any unregulated business, the quality would suffer in many as the school tried to become more profitable), or there would be government regulation and sooner or later the private schools would be bound to the same expensive and troubling bureaucratic morass that public schools find themselves in. And since profit-taking would become part of the equation, a large chunk of money that would not be needed in a public school system would be subtracted, further degrading the quality of education for most, or it would alternately jack up the price.

In short, universal private schools are a dangerously attractive illusion which would destroy the public school system and replace it with something far worse. And, as mentioned above, even private schools today don’t deliver a better result than public schools in any case.

So what’s the solution? Easy: face reality, and understand that you get what you pay for. There’s no free lunch here. You want a good education for our kids, then pay for it. And a public school system, well-run, is the best answer to that.

Already we have class divides in the public school system because most of the funding comes from the local level. Poorer districts, especially urban ones with high costs, deliver poorer education; wealthier neighborhoods fund their own local districts, meaning better schools. This is spread out a little because such varying neighborhoods are often mixed in the same district, but overall there is definitely a class division effect that penalizes children from poorer families. The answer: switch funding to the federal level, and distribute money on the basis of the cost of local resources. If people want a better education for their kids, then all the schools would have to be bumped up, making for better incentive.

Next: streamline the schools. This might take an act of Congress or something even more drastic, but the current state of public schools must be re-evaluated and re-written from the ground up. One example is staffing, faculty and administrative, and pay scales. Some school districts have more administrators than teachers, and administrators usually get higher salaries, not to mention control. Supposedly, we respect and prize good teachers, but that’s not true. As Bill Maher says, we call them heroes, but we pay them like chumps. Reverse that. A new teacher would have minimal classes and a high administrative load at the lowest pay scale. If the teacher performs well in class, they will be awarded more classes, fewer administrative duties, higher pay, and more say in decision-making in the school. The post of full-time teacher should be the highest-paid and most sought-after position, and talent should be the means to achieve that position. The position of public school teacher should be one that young adults aspire to.

Next: de-politicize education. The politicians from the local school boards to the Congress must be cut out, completely, from the curriculum decision-making process. We don’t want politicians making our medical decisions for us, why should we want them to make educational decisions for us? Only practicing educators, the professionals, should be making those decisions.

Next: fix the curriculum–but as covered in the previous point, this should be left to the experts. One thing they’d likely do first is throw out standardized testing for the failure that it is. But all that is a whole ‘nother post.

And finally: throw money at it. Lots of money. Tons of money. Throw money at education until it hurts, and then throw some more. Teachers must be paid handsomely. Schools must be outfitted with the materials they need. I’m not saying just dump the cash on the school doorstep without a plan, but fully fund the program, dammit. Education is one of the best investments you can possibly make. It pays off a thousandfold twenty years down the line. Stop bitching about your taxes and realize that your penny-pinching today will cut the legs out from the national economy a generation from now. Along with public infrastructure and the space program, education is the most profitable investment we can make.

And in the long run, the public school system is the only way to cash in.

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  1. Manok
    January 31st, 2006 at 02:05 | #1

    Long story, good points. Yes, “the west” should be starting to throw money at the educational system, but the way these countries are build up now, heavily relying on tax income, government budget deficits, and having to strip many of the western “virtues”, like a social security safety net, the whole thing looks like a card house.

    Politicians are usually elected for 4 years, so why invest in something that will bear fruits 20 years from now? I think that’s the flaw that’s corrupting democracy more and more these days. Short-term, slash-and-burn stuff, don’t bother to replant, and sow some seeds.

    The lesser educational system is not so severely impacting us, because in Asia, where they do study their arses off, the brighest and best have been flocking to the west, where they are being paid handsomely. This certainly helps to keep the companies going, and that’s where it’s all about, isn’t it?

    According to me, the big problem will start to emerge when these bright Asian students do NOT go to the west anymore, but stay in their own country, and help to further boom their economies. And when a certain economic level has been reached, even the people that did migrate to the States and became successful, will go back to their home countries, and put their money, efforts, and additional learned skills into their own nation’s progress.

    But don’t worry, America will still have loads of rich people, plus loads of poor people with a low eductaion. The first group does not need any work, only tax breaks, and for the second group, there is plenty of work available in the U.S. military. At least their educational system is good, is properly funded, and you will get a chance to see the world. Sign up now, where going to Iran! :-)

  2. Tim Kane
    January 31st, 2006 at 02:53 | #2

    Nice essay Luis, but you forget one important thing: undereducating the public is a goal of the Neocon right.

    Keep in mind, they want to sustain the belief that most people aren’t capable of ruling themselves, that only an elite can do it. So they want the broad masses to be idiots so that they can steer them around by their noses and use education as a way of separating the wheat from the chaif.

    I went to a (now) expensive (not when I went there) private catholic highschool for 4 years and 2 years at catholic parochial school. I learned little in those 6 years. I didn’t know how to right a paper when I went to college. One of the professors took me aside and taught me and salvaged my college career. My highschool chemestry teacher tried to teach us that the color of water was blue, I had to correct him on that. They charged $800 a year back in the 70s, now its $10,000 and has become an enclave of the wealthy.

    The neocon’s are all about disempowering the masses so as to uber-empower the aristocracy.

    Undermining education systems is part of the plan.

  3. ykw
    January 31st, 2006 at 03:04 | #3

    You put a lot on the table here.

    Linear regression, which is the science of comparing an apple with an orange, fairly, is based on assumptions and therefore is more of an art than a science. In other words, when one tries to normalize the private school data against the public by trying to compensate for the cherry picking, the method they use to do that will effect the result. It would be interesting to have several different teams take a crack at that data and see what they come up with.

    In Boston metro area there are many cities (perhaps 20), and there is a rule that says you can send you kid to any school system, yet if it is out of your area, you are responsible for getting your kid there. This helps enlarge the schools that do well and down-size those that don’t. It has a small effect.

    It is my understanding is that studies have shown that adding money does not do too much.

    I think getting every kid a laptop w/ lots of fun software would be a good thing. I think kids get bored and we need to get them more stimulation. Many hate school. Many turn off. I think this has a big effect.

    Also, minorities in the usa are responsible for many of the low test scores. If you take them out of the data, then the usa students score quite well. I think 1st generation anybody in any country is at a disadvantage. I’m not sure what to do about that. If their parents had little education, and they don’t value education, and they are in a low income neighborhood, they may value things other than education. Perhaps getting these kids into work/education programs would help. Here, instead of k through 12, they do k through 16 with 4 years of work in there. Perhaps that would get them more serious about education.

  4. Paul
    January 31st, 2006 at 17:12 | #4

    I cannot understand the strange attraction to universal private schools and the desire to dismantle or discount the public school system.

    That’s easy, and when you understand it you realize why this is such a powerful issue for the neocons.

    It’s because parents panic at the thought of sending their kids to what they fear are substandard schools. Operative word in there would be “fear”.

    Personally, I’m dead-set against vouchers. In fact, if I had my way, I’d give some consideration to passing laws banning private schools for children under the age of 18.

    Why? Because inherent in the notion of “every man was created equal” is the idea that one of the primary jobs of the government is to ensure that equal opportunity; the only real way to do that is to keep public schools doing a good job.

    But the attraction is much, much simpler for parents to understand than it is for us single-no-kids to grasp. It’s panic and fear.

    In other words, perfect issues for the Republicans to use to push people’s buttons.

    Seattle, WA

  5. Paul
    February 1st, 2006 at 15:50 | #5

    Something I left out… I’ve long thought that the biggest problem with a voucher system is the economic stratification that would occur.

    As you correctly point out, the demand would be such that the top-flight private schools would simply raise their prices at least as much as the voucher was worth. There’d be a whole new class of private schools that charged something over the voucher, but not as much as the top-notch schools did.

    So basically, children would start getting whatever education their parents could afford for them. If we think of education as a commodity, something that people can spend on if they choose, that’s fine; but the obvious problem is that if you’re the kid, it really stinks if your folks either choose to not (or can’t) buy you an XBox 360 quality education and give you some ratty old NES quality instead.

    Anyway, the solution? Simple. New law- vouchers for everyone, but no school anywhere can charge more than the amount of the voucher. Pow- the top flight privates have to actually LOWER their prices.

    Or you could simply say “any school accepting vouchers cannot charge any price over the value of the voucher.”

    While you’re at it, also make a law that says any school that accepts vouchers cannot turn any student away; if a school has more demand than space, they must select incoming students via random draw.

    Pow, just like that you’ve created a huge disincentive for schools to charge more than the voucher price, and you’ve killed their ability to cherry pick the best (ie, cheapest) students.

    Of course, this will never fly, so we’ve got to work to improve the public schools as much as possible and keep killing vouchers as much as possible.

    Seattle, WA

  6. jasminetea
    September 6th, 2006 at 21:25 | #6

    I am an immigrant teacher working in both public and private schools in the last three years in this country. Finally I chose a private school, Like the fish found her sea.

    PERSONAL experience:

    1. Salary: this pubilic >this private by 12%.
    2. There are both certified and non-certified teachers in both schools.
    3. The private school I am working provides me with the freest platform for my talents. The leadership is amazing.
    4. Colleagues in this private school are much more friendly and cooperative without showing themsevles as queens or kings.
    5. Scores of WASL, this Private > this public by about 10%, possibly due to the lower ratio of teacher to student.
    6. Students in my private did get more opportunity of individualized instruction and training of multiple intelligence.
    7. My best friend is teaching in a public school and she said her school is also great.

    There is no single truth in education. People have their freedom to choose their education. However we discuss or argue, the market will decide which kind of schools are better.

  7. Eino
    March 9th, 2007 at 01:32 | #7

    Public schools exist to support their administrators, teachers and unions. Private schools exist only to the extent that they support their parents and students. Failing private schools go away. Failing government (public) schools just demand more money and power. Anything we can do to support private schools improves our country.

  8. Mark
    November 22nd, 2009 at 10:59 | #8

    Eino makes sense. I attended a high school with about 2500-3000 students. We had about 6 administrators. My kids high school (where I subbed for a while) had about 10 administrators, for under 1000 kids. The right would be happy to pay more for schools (and how much money goes to schools has nothing to do with tax breaks for corporations, etc., so I won’t go there.) The fundamental issue is: are we getting what we pay for? I don’t think so. Teachers are against incentive pay, because someone might make more than someone else. There’s little incentive to excel. Students and the educational industry (because of MTV, etc.) believe student need to be entertained to learn. You need to read, study, and apply yourself to learn. The entire school system is a mess and it’s the fault of the industry, political correctness, parents who don’t care, students who don’t care, and people who think pouring money down a sinkhole will fix things. The Right doesn’t mind spending money on things that work. That’s why they prefer military spending (and, no it’s not perfect, but that’s another subject), to taking money from people (in the form of taxes) and throwing it in a cesspool of failed policies, rather than letting people choose to spend money at school they believe meeds their child’s needs.

  9. Luis
    November 22nd, 2009 at 11:38 | #9

    Teachers are against incentive pay, because someone might make more than someone else.

    I think that’s a bit too snarky, and if not snarky, then shallow. Some teachers are concerned about pay based on set rules of seniority, others may be concerned based on having to perform. No doubt about it. But that’s not the main reason teachers oppose performance-based pay.

    The real reason is simple: teaching performance cannot be objectively measured, and when that is attempted, the students usually suffer for it. Any teacher worth their salt knows full well that evaluation is one of the least reliable areas of education, for several reasons. For example, every student learns differently; there is no one magical way to teach any given subject, and this brings instability to evaluation right from the start. Students vary from class to class, semester to semester, year to year. Added to the equation is the old truism of “you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” A lot of education is motivation, but there are no guarantees; education is more about what students do than what teachers do, thus the “teacher as facilitator” methodologies. All of these things and more throw a wrench into evaluating the skills of the teacher.

    So, right from the start, you have a difficult environment in which to measure the performance of a worker. But then we come to the real problem: the method of evaluation. Sure, it can be easy to spot an excellent teacher, and just as easy to spot a terrible one. The extremes are simple to judge. It’s the gradations that get impossible to measure. Exactly how will a teacher’s performance be judged? The best way would be a longitudinal study, where an evaluator fully understands the makeup of the classes, the students and their individual challenges and gifts; has an excellent understanding of the field of study; performs a careful examination of the teacher in action over time; has understanding of the interaction of the teacher with students, how the teacher motivates, advises, counsels; knows what teaching methodologies are used, what grading systems are employed, what flexibility the teacher assigns, so forth and so on and so on–and is able to judge these in terms of how they are applied in the context of the unique class makeup. Then, to be fair across the board, this overall understanding of the teacher’s work would be compared objectively with other teachers at the school so as to fairly determine who deserves the best performance ratings. This is the only real way to actually judge performance and fairly deal out rewards and punishments.

    Of course, this method of evaluation is never used. There would have to be a lot more administrators, who would have to be about as expert as the teachers and be qualified in the right areas, and they would have to spend a lot more time and effort than is feasible. So, what do we get instead?

    What we get is evaluation based on basic student performance determined by standardized tests. Which is a crappy way to judge teaching skills. That’s why teachers really don’t like “incentive pay,” because it’s not accurate and punishes the students by forcing teachers to pay attention to a system which rewards rote methods and statistical chance, encourages cheating and giving up on poor students, and is best served by ignoring true education and following a cookie-cutter system which is ill-formed as a teaching methodology.

    So to say that “Teachers are against incentive pay because someone might make more than someone else” is utterly unfair. “Incentive pay” is usually a way for politicians to sound good by claiming that they improved education when they really harmed it.

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