Are You Actually Helping the Public Schools by Withdrawing Your Kids From Them?

That’s the argument my friend Justin Elliott makes at CampusProgress.org in response to my post against private school vouchers and in favor of privileged families investing in their community public schools. You know, by actually sending their kids to them.

As the product of a lifetime of expensive private schooling, I do take a bit of umbrage at this logic. My parents chose to send me to private schools to ensure small class sizes and because, with the help of generous financial aid, they were lucky enough to afford it. But they of course continued to pay the high property taxes in our hometown, a full 55% of which goes to funding the public schools. And, of course, for every family in town that opts for private schooling, the local public schools have fewer students to deal with — thus saving money — while town revenues and the school budget are unaffected.

I have to say: I haven’t heard that one before, and it is a compelling argument. Overcrowding is one problem of many in schools we regularly classify as "bad." But whether this can be called a central problem is another debate; research shows that while smaller class sizes can benefit children, especially younger ones and students with learning differences, the background of the children in a classroom, not how many children are there, is the best overall predictor of how effective that classroom will be. In other words, socioeconomic and cultural capital matters in a school. So when I compare the benefits that just a few sets of active parents can bring to a school with the drawbacks of a few extra warm bodies, I have to err on the side of enrollment. Some parents, like Justin’s, might advocate loudly for the public schools even though their kids aren’t in them. But they are a tiny, tiny minority of the private school population.

I attended a public school system that ran the gamut from welfare and free lunch to Wall Street parents and private college counselors. But everybody benefited from the efforts of a small group of parents — not necessarily the wealthiest, but certainly the most involved — who advocated for more hours devoted to arts and music, more creative curricula, and more diverse sports offerings. These things didn’t come without a fight.

I was lucky to grow up in a diverse town with a good enough public school option — an option that many local parents still eschewed because they were turned off by the number of students who went on to community colleges and came from low-income families, even though my high school also offered the most AP classes in the county and consistently sent a few kids to the Ivy League. But I recognize that some parents truly feel like they are looking into the abyss when they evaluate the public school in their district, and I am deeply sympathetic to that. I want to live in a vibrant, affordable, urban neighborhood, and I also want to send any future children of mine to adequate public schools. I realize those two goals can be difficult to achieve in tandem.

But imagine, for just a moment, a world without private schools. Don’t you think our options would be better then? I know it’s a bit Rawlsian pie-in-the-sky, but it’s a thought experiment I appreciate.

3 thoughts on “Are You Actually Helping the Public Schools by Withdrawing Your Kids From Them?

  1. opit

    I went to both private and public schools. I’d have to say the private model allows for more academic freedom for the institution as well as more effective targeting to assist problems with students.
    Isn’t this a bit of a rerun of the segregation problem ? Money – not colour – is the divider, though the sorting comes out about the same. In that way whining about the money is a dodge to evade a program to give some substance to the idea that “All Men Are Created Equal”.

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  2. Isaac

    Peer effects also matter. Removing students from school from socioeconomic backgrounds that are more likely to do well in school will tend to reduce achievement of the remaining students simply because a “role model” has left (this is consistent with the claim of expensive private universities that you learn as much from your peers as your professors).

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  3. Conny Jensen

    “for every family in town that opts for private schooling, the local public schools have fewer students to deal with — thus saving money — while town revenues and the school budget are unaffected.”

    This is only partially true. Local funding may remain the same despite the number of students enrolled, but state funding will not! In our district the state pays a little over $6000 per pupil enrolled.
    Our district is now financially in a bind because it lost a total of 100 students in two years time.

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