Private Choices, Public Policy & Other People’s Children

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:   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:, or 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!

Video Extra:

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  1. I’ve noticed that Christie, when challenged regarding his choice to send his kids to private school, always mentions religion as his reason. No doubt this is because it’s the one safe answer that won’t elicit the response, “But you advocate the opposite for public schools!” Of course, the Catholic schools he’s chosen are the most elite, expensive available, with all the features of top private schools that you mention: small class sizes, varied offerings, little standardized testing, etc. No doubt these are also huge reasons for Christie’s choice, but he doesn’t dare say so publicly.

    1. Indeed it would be relevant to compare many attributes of the private school to the local public schools, like those I’ve listed here. One might make the Single Sex case as an easy out as well. But when Religion and Single Sex are also coupled with small class sizes, rich diverse curriculum and a wide array of extracurricular activities, it’s hard to argue that single sex and religion are the only factors or that the others are not also relevant. Clearly they are in a school where tuition alone, no less per pupil cost (which exceeds tuition) far exceeds per pupil spending of local public schools (despite complete absence of special needs children).

  2. So if I like to eat Steak & Lobster and wash it down with a nice wine, I must also advocate for funding the food stamp program to a level that would allow welfare recipients to do the same? Ok….

    But I’ll play along since I’m already researching private schools in Atlanta for my children…. I’ll be back soon.

    1. No. Note my point about personal choices and personal opinions as opposed to personal opinions and public policy. I’m unconcerned here about the individual who likes steak and lobster and doesn’t care one way or the other about the diets of others where public policy is concerned. I also believe that food indulgence is somewhat different as a public policy concern.

      Most importantly, education (unlike food) is a positional good. If one only receives minimally adequate educational services, but others receive much more, that necessarily diminishes the value of the minimally adequate services. Individuals only receiving minimally adequate education will have limited access to higher education and to the labor market to the extent that others have access to more and better education (since access is relative to the competitive pool). If we increase the minimally adequate education, and others adjust to still receive the same amount more, we’ve not necessarily changed the distribution of opportunity.

      However, the individual provided appropriate dietary sustenance may not be less healthy and may end up more healthy than the glutton. Bad comparison.

      Further, the differences are not entirely about the level of resources, though they are significantly about the level of resources.

      1. Do you really want to go down the “education is a positional good” road? That’s a tendentious claim to say the least, and it has many perverse implications for public funding of education. The value of education, for me is non-positional. I value it because it gives one a better life — absolutely in every way and without reference to one’s position relative to others. So I don’t view education in that way, and am not making decisions for my children based on a desire to simply keep them ahead of the other kids in the neighborhood. Certainly some people do see education as a positional good — and I don’t want them having anything to do with my child’s education.

        This about sums it up:

      2. Your logic above falls apart as soon as you use the phrase “better life,” since better is dependent largely on your ability to compete economically, purchase goods and services, obtain employment, etc, in your present market. One can argue that there is an absolute value to education to an extent, but it is clearly largely positional. Credentials, and credential attainment is positional. And in particular, the relative quality of education we provide to children in K-12 schooling, on the assumption that we expect larger and larger shares of them to compete for limited slots in higher education (and for scholarships, etc.) is critically important. Relative position plays a significant role, else there would be much less market for elite private schooling. The blog post to which you refer presents a bizarre understanding of education as positional, and parent motivation.

        I would suggest reading:

  3. Well that was fast. Atlanta Public Schools claim to spend about 15k per student. Tuition at Greater Atlanta Christian School ranges from10k for pre-k to 15k for HS. The calculation from the 990 works out to $16,332 in cost per student. (30,280,259 / 1854).

    Similarly, in nearby Athens the public schools claim to spend $11,360 per student. Tuition at Athens Academy ranges from 10k to 15k and the form 990 cost calculation is 13,320.

    And so yes, I’m still comfortable proclaiming that we spend far too much given poor results we get from public schools. Let the money follow the student and we will have both choice and accountability.

    1. Figure 12, page 27 of this report shows Atlanta metro area private independent schools spending nearly double the average of traditional publics in the area:

      Interestingly, even your cherry picking yielded christian schools which spend at relatively high levels (where the sector is relatively low).

      And again, these schools do not serve anywhere near the same population as those served in the city public schools. The private schools to which you refer get their results – if they even do – largely as a function of their population – and – their costs of achieving those results are lower – largely as a function of their population.

      So your comfort level (or at least your argument) remains guided by misinformation. But I don’t think anything I say, or any amount of data will convince you otherwise.

  4. Funny that you would ask readers to compare data from “their” school to data from public schools — and then accuse them of cherry picking. Had I wanted to cherry pick, I certainly could have. Instead I gave an honest answer to what I assumed was an honest question, and am slandered for my efforts.

    Interestingly the report you cite above shows that Christian schools in the Atlanta MSA spend “approximately the same as public schools” a fact which you neglected to include in your comment above. So now who’s cherry picking?

    1. The cherry picking reference was merely meant to indicate that you picked a few schools. And, as it happens those schools largely supported the original contention of my post (including ones I did not expect would). That’s fine. I happen to have an analysis of a larger sample of Atlanta schools from my 2009 study – to which I refer. My error for not double checking my own finding regarding Christian schools in Atlanta. Nationally they tended to be much lower.

      1. Of course I picked a few schools. That’s what you asked me to do. Let me quote you:

        “Get a copy of the school’s IRS 990 tax filing from the school .. 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.”

        You wanted a personal comparison –and you got one. And when the comparison was not to your liking, you retreated to averages and attacked me as a cherry picker with an aversion to data.

      2. And what you found were private schools that spend more than their public school neighbors – and knowingly serve very different populations. Yet, despite your own limited data collection (as per my recommendation), you held to your predetermined conclusion that the public schools, which spend less, on totally different students, still spend too much for a low quality product. I struggle to see how that conclusion is supported by your data and would still characterize that as an aversion to data. I believe we’re done here.

  5. What I found were private schools that spent about the same as the amount claimed by public schools (and in one instance less than half). The tuition payments also ranged from much less to about the same. So the data I found and presented is not as you have summarized. Perhaps you should struggle with those three data points for a few more minutes before declaring me innumerate.

    1. Tuition is a partial subsidy and not the relevant comparison figure, which is why I did not suggest using tuition.

      You found (as listed in your comment):
      Atlanta public schools around $15k, and Christian $16,332 (more)
      Athens Public $11,360 and Athens Academy, $13,320 (over 17% more)

      your comment: “Well that was fast. Atlanta Public Schools claim to spend about 15k per student. Tuition at Greater Atlanta Christian School ranges from10k for pre-k to 15k for HS. The calculation from the 990 works out to $16,332 in cost per student. (30,280,259 / 1854). Similarly, in nearby Athens the public schools claim to spend $11,360 per student. Tuition at Athens Academy ranges from 10k to 15k and the form 990 cost calculation is 13,320.”

      So, in each case listed in your comment, you found private spending higher, and list no other information to the contrary (less than half? which one?) I don’t see the 3rd data point, but have little doubt that you can find a school (likely a conservative christian school) that does spend about half. That’s what I found in my study in many regions. Nonetheless, you conclude, with no other information, that it is the public schools that spend too much for sub-par results?

      1. Ah… I see I neglected to include 3rd data point (Athens christian). Sorry for accusing you of not seeingwhat I didn’t type. I regard all the comparisons as ballpark and am more than a little suspicious that the public numbers are artificially low. Nothing in the data exercise you wanted us to undertake was especially compelling for the apples to watermelons comparison of private to public schools and certainly provided no reason for a Bayesian update of priors.

      2. Fair enough. For a more thorough comparison, with consideration of the apples and watermelons issue, I do suggest you read the previously mentioned private school spending study.

  6. Excellent, honest post, and I love it when SF101 gets into a data battle with the detractors!! I just love it!

    Steak and Lobster for you and not for me? That reminded me of that old adage “let them eat cake”. And given the teacher-bashing that’s been coming down a lot lately, I’m feeling very poorly positioned to consume steak and lobster.

    I admit I skimmed all of the above, so maybe you mentioned this, but isn’t some of the apparent cost disparity between per-pupil spending of an independent school (assuming it’s a stand-alone) and nearby public schools due in part to the bureaucratic overhead of public schools? Public schools are part of districts which employ central office personnel that do not participate in instructional efforts, (and of course public districts have negotiated salaries to meet). An independent school is likely to be self-contained, with management costs kept at the site, and therefore able to allocate more money toward direct instructional benefits for kids. Please correct me if I’m off base.

    1. But, the point is that private independent schools spend, on average, much more not less than traditional public districts per pupil. On average, they spend nearly twice what nearby public schools spend. And, they don’t have many of the costs, most notably children with disabilities, which in Connecticut school districts, for example, consume about 25% of expenditures. So, private independent schools in effect have more than double the resources to spread across a curriculum that ranges from advanced to more advanced. There’s little need to re-allocate to remedial and/or special education programs, allowing for small class sizes in all other areas. And, on average, private independent schools actually do carry significant administrative overhead, including “central” administration and “development” offices and various school (upper, middle, lower) level heads and class level deans. I believe I have some figures on administrative expense shares in my private school study linked above (showing much greater share in private schools). Public schools benefit somewhat from scale on administrative expense.

  7. Got it… Thanks. I’ve had parents ask my opinion about private schooling and my stock answer is that if you are paying big bucks directly out of pocket for a private elementary education, at the very least you should be getting substantially smaller class sizes. I’m in a relatively small town, but we have an expensive independent K-8 school here that boasts class sizes of 12 or so. And yes, they enroll few kids with significant special needs.

    I think there are lots of us who would opt for a high-end independent school if it was within our means. I for one have fantasized about home schooling and not for religious reasons. It’s really a shame the benefits of good independent schools are not standard issue in the public system, and the hypocrisy of many so-called reformers on that issue is shameless.

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