Private Choices, Public Policy & Other People’s Children

Posted on July 8, 2011



I don’t spend much if any time talking about my personal decisions and preferences on this blog. It’s mostly about data and policy.  There’s been much talk lately about whether a Governor’s or President’s choice to send their children to elite private schools, or where Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or prominent “ed reformers” attended school are at all relevant to the current policy conversation around  “reforming” public schools.  When those choices have been questioned publicly, they’ve often been met with the backlash that those are personal choices of no relevance to the current policy debate – just dirty personal attacks about personal, rational choices.

I have no problem with these personal choices. But, these personal choices may, in fact be relevant to the current policy debate.  I do keep in mind my own personal choices and preferences as I evaluate what I believe to be good policy for the children of others. And, I try to keep in mind what I know from my background in research and policy when I make my personal choices.   Like these prominent politicos and pundits, I too choose private independent schools – relatively expensive ones – for my children, and I have my reasons for doing so. As I’ve noted on my blog on a number of occasions, I taught at an exceptional private independent school in New York City, and have relatives and friends who continue to be involved in (and with) high quality private independent schools as teachers, administrators and parents. I did not, however, attend private school. I attended public school in Vermont, followed by private college (Lafayette College).

Why do I personally prefer private independent schools, which often come with a high price tag?  Here are a few reasons:

  1. The responsiveness that comes from a close-knit small community with not only small class sizes but also lower total student load for teachers (at middle and secondary level in particular)
  2. The depth and breadth of curricular offerings ranging from Latin in the middle school, to a diverse array of social science, advanced science and math courses at the high school level and a plethora of opportunities in the arts and athletics.
  3. The lack of emphasis on standardized testing – bubble tests and overemphasis on tested curricular areas and state standards.

Yes, I do consider it important that these schools are not test-whipped, specifically that they are not obsessed with basic reading and math bubble tests alone, or even more disturbing, tests of science and social studies content where the balance (or absence) of content is a function of partisan preferences of ill-informed politically motivated elected officials (e.g. Kansas science standards, or Texas social studies/history standards – thankfully, I’m not in KS anymore).

These days, I consider it especially important that my children not be in a school where teachers have to hang their hopes of achieving a living wage (or getting a bonus to afford cosmetic surgery as in “Bad Teacher”[hope to see that one soon!]) on whether or not my child gains X+Y points on those reading or math tests. In fact, these may now be my main reasons for opting out.

So yes, you might try to call me a hypocrite for preferring private schools for my own children while apparently being such a staunch defender and supporter of the public system (including voting yes on local district budgets, even when encouraged to vote no by public officials). But that would be a dreadful oversimplification and misrepresentation of my position.

I have worked in both public and private schools – one good and one bad of each – over a 10+ year period prior to my life in higher education.  I’ve studied and compared public and private schools in various locations and of various types for over 15 years and published numerous articles, papers and reports. What I’ve learned most from these studies is that private and/or less regulated markets are simply more varied than public and/or more regulated markets. Neither better nor worse on average – simply more varied.

Top notch private schools spend much more, and many financially strapped, relatively average to very low academic quality private schools do spend much less. Much more and much less than one another, and much more and much less than nearby public schools.  It is a massive bait and switch to suggest – look how great Sidwell Friends (DC),  Dalton or Fieldston (NYC) are compared to public schools, and look how much the average Catholic parish elementary school spends compared to the urban public district?  Of course, it’s never as obviously phrased as a bait and switch – suggesting that you can get a Sidwell or Dalton education at an urban Catholic elementary school price.  You can’t! Yes, the average Catholic parish elementary school likely spends less per pupil than the public district. But that school is no Sidwell, Dalton or Fieldston, which spend closer to and in excess of double the public schools in their area.

Private schools do not, as many assume, spend only about half what public schools do. This is urban legend, drawn from dated analyses that were misrepresented to begin with (over 10 years ago).  My extensive report on private school supply and spending covers these issues quite extensively.

To reiterate a major finding from my study of private school costs, private independent schools of the type I am talking about here (members of NAIS or NIPSA), spend ON AVERAGE, 1.96 times the average per pupil amount of public schools in the same labor market! (and have half the pupil to teacher ratio)

I am quite convinced that many of the policy makers who choose elite private schools for their own and advocate for scaling back the public system, really don’t understand the difference. They really don’t know that their private schools outspend nearby traditional public schools – by a lot – despite serving more advantaged student populations. Heck, I’ve talked to administrators in private independent schools who feel that their own budgets are tight (legitimately so), and assume that the public schools around them spend much more per child. But they are simply naïve in this regard (while wise in many other ways). No intent to harm. They’ve simply bought into the misguided rhetoric that private schools spend less and get more and they’ve never double-checked the facts. But even a few minutes of pondering their own budgets and looking up local public school spending brings them around. (Part of this perception is likely driven by differences in access to funding for capital projects, where heads of private schools recognize the heavy lifting of major fundraising campaigns, and envy the taxing authority of public school districts for these purposes).

In my view, the hypocrisy lies in what those who choose elite private schools for their own argue are the best solutions for public education for the children of others.  If the preferences are the same, there is no hypocrisy. The problem is when those preferences are vastly different – completely at odds – as they tend to be in the present “ed reform” and “new normal” debate.

It is hypocritical for pundits who favor for their own children, expensive schooling with diverse curriculum, small class size and little standardized testing (freeing teachers to be professionals), to argue for less money, class size increases and increased standardized testing (and teacher evaluation based on those tests) when it comes to other peoples’ children.

Yes, I too personally favor expensive private schooling for the reasons I’ve indicated above. And yes, my private school significantly outspends both the elite suburban public school district where I live and New Jersey’s reasonably well funded urban districts (compared to other states, see: http://www.schoolfundingfairness.org).   The way I see it, I would not just be a hypocrite, but a complete a-hole if I used my pulpit (what little pulpit I have) as a school finance expert to argue that we should be spending less on others, advocating different policies for others than I desire for myself.  But it’s precisely because I spend my day buried in data on school finance and education policy that I see this glaring hypocrisy.

The difference is that I believe that other children – those whose parents are not able to make this expensive choice – should have access to well-funded schools that also provide small class sizes, diverse curriculum, and for that matter, place less emphasis on standardized tests, and treat teachers as responsible, knowledgeable professionals (not script reading stand-ins and test proctors).

To clarify, this is not a criticism of individuals with personal preferences for high quality education for their own children who are otherwise unconcerned with (or oblivious to) the broader public policy questions pertaining to the children of others. Rather, this is a direct criticism of those public officials and vocal “ed reformers” who prefer high quality, well funded education for their own and then loudly and publicly advocate for a very different quality (and type) of education for the children of others.

If we could actually close the gap between public school resources and resource levels of elite private schools, there might be less demand for those elite private schools (though some would indeed respond with an arms race to outpace public schools).  Presently, however, elite private schools stand to benefit significantly from the “ed reform” and “new normal” movement which will likely make more public schools – including those in more affluent ‘burbs – even less desirable for parents currently on the fence.

So, here’s my challenge to all those policymakers who also prefer elite private independent schools for their children.  I urge you to make a list of all of the reasons why you chose a private independent school. Notably, many if not most parents list class size as a major factor (and most schools advertise class size as a major benefit).  Make a list of the specific attributes of your private school including:

  1. Average class size
  2. Teacher education levels
  3. Numbers and types of elective and advanced course offerings
  4. Numbers and types of extracurricular activities
  5. Whether they pay more experienced teachers more than less experienced ones (or more for teachers holding advanced degrees?)
  6. Whether they emphasize student test scores when evaluating or compensating teachers?

and whatever else you might think of. (here are a few sample NJ private schools)

Get a copy of the school’s IRS 990 tax filing from the school (or from:  http://foundationcenter.org/, or http://www.guidestar.org) to find out roughly how much your school spends each year, and divide that by the number of total enrolled pupils.

Then, gather similar information on surrounding public schools. Make your own comparisons. And after you’ve done so, let me know if you’re still comfortable making bold public proclamations that we need to reign in the absurd spending of public schools, increase class sizes and slash all of those frivolous extracurricular programs for other people’s children, but certainly not our own!

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