Parents who bear the financial luxury of having the conversation, may eventually find themselves weighing the advantages and disadvantages of sending their children to a well-respected private school, over what has been described as the more lowbrow settings of many public schools. Full disclosure: I spent some time pursuing a career as an educator in a public high school, so I can attest to the shortcomings of its structure personally, if need be. I have also been associated with a good many private schools over the years as an academic tutor, so I can also verify how much of their oft-heralded academic superiority is greatly exaggerated by its enthusiasts.
It’s true that many private schools have higher test scores and graduation rates than their public school equivalents. It’s also true that private schools, being primarily funded by the parents who can afford to send their students there, are not obligated to accept every child looking to enroll into their institution (having parents whose income can meet the financial demands of a private school education is also not always enough, since many private schools reserve the right to dismiss any student whose academic performance or personal views fall short of their satisfactory standards). Public schools, being funded largely by the state through taxes, are normally prohibited from being selective about their student body (hence why it’s called public education; if you’re under 18, you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat). However, it is also true that private schools are often better at promoting an engaged and interactive learning experience in the classroom, as opposed to public schools where preparing students on how to pass standardized tests reigns supreme.
I present all of the above not because I want to argue one educational system over the other. In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably convincingly argue the talking points for either side, without ever injecting my personal views into the discussion. What I really want to address here is the libertarian argument I often hear in my part of the country, which insists that public schools should be completely replaced in favor of private schools in order to increase the value of America’s education system. The reason I don’t support this view is because its proponents use questionable criteria to argue against the value of public schools, and because the entire argument appears to be accepted by individuals whose real goal is to satisfy their already existing political or philosophical ideology, rather than an actual desire to provide a better educational model for the students.
Eliminating public schools will by definition exclude certain people from getting any kind of education–primarily people who need it the most–because there will always be someone who will not be able to pay the tuition, or meet the academic standards of the private institution. And these children also need to get a basic education if your goal is to truly have an educated populace and be economically competitive on the global market (if it’s not, then disregard this whole post and go about your day). A proponent of the private-school-only model might argue that private schools come in a variety of forms, and several could be set up where private tuition and high academic standards will not be decisive in enrollment. To which, perhaps, individuals can donate of their own free choosing to contribute to the basic education of those less affluent in society. The problem with this line of reason is that it sets out to resolve something for which there is already a solution.
There is in fact already a model in place by which education is provided to those who cannot afford high tuition rates and whose scholarship is not exemplary, and it’s called the public schools system. What motivation is there to create a complicated set of arrangements within the private school model, when the public schools already serve the function to meet those arrangements? Essentially, I find two reasons at the heart of it offered by private school proponents, neither of which has much to do with increasing the value of education:
1. “I don’t like taxes, and big government.”
2. “I don’t approve of what the state is teaching my child.”
Point number one is popular with libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel that government involvement in the marketplace (be it of goods or ideas) and taxation is harmful to the system as a whole, as it leads to over regulation, a lack of productivity, and a stifling of the individual’s liberties in favor of providing communal welfare. We can debate the validity of these economic points all day if we want, the bottom line as it relates to the public schools is that because public schools are funded by the states (through taxes) they are an infringement against the rights of citizens who may want to opt out of their requirement to pay the taxes which fund institutions they get no services from (either because they have no children, or prefer to send their children to private schools). The issue I see with this is that while it would make for a compelling sociopolitical discussion about the role of government and civil services, none of it has anything to do with invalidating the notion that public schools serve a needed role in educating citizens who otherwise would have no access to formal schooling. If your contention lies with the process by which public schools are funded (i.e. taxes), then you have to first voice your concern with the supreme law of the land (U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8).
Whether you agree with the efficiency of it or not, the government (both federal and state) has the constitutional right to collect taxes, which it can in turn use to fund social services; education being one of those services on account that it provides a positive benefit to society. Thus, the whole justification taken here in favor of private schools over public ones, seems to stem from the fact that the existence and funding of public schools doesn’t align with one’s political beliefs. But this is unsatisfactory in convincing anybody outside of your mindset in the objective worth of your position, since a socialist could equally argue that private schools ought to be eliminated because they foster a sentiment of elitism and class segregation, which will lead to long-term economic ruin. The problem with both approaches is that the topic at hand is being used to support one’s predisposed political opinions, instead of letting one’s political opinions rationally derive from the topic at hand.
The second point is, to me, a testament as to why public schools are necessary. Speaking primarily as a former educator, it needs to be said that when I sought to teach students verifiable, testable, reliable data, I owed it to them not to let their (and their parents’) biases deter their learning process. There is not doubt that the public school curriculum is at times undermined and dulled by the school board that overseas it, which can have negative affects on the education standards presented to the students. But ultimately the teacher is still not held accountable directly to any parent or school administrator who may take issue with the philosophical implications of a particular topic raised in class. Teachers are held accountable to the set district standards, whose authority lies independent of the administrators running the campus and the citizens whose taxes fund the district. And as long as they can demonstrate that they have not violated said standards, no parent or administrator can dictate the information and content that make up the teacher’s lecture (try as they might at times, they will by necessity lose in every attempt, as they very well should). Therefore, to promote private schools over public schools as a means to ensure the promulgation of your personal ideals and values in the classroom, is to me a position that is almost pointless to refute, because I guarantee you that there are a number of demonstrable facts, across various academic disciplines, that negate many opinions near and dear to your heart. Once again, trying to make reality conform to whatever ideology you have chosen to accept is by definition incompatible with providing students with a thorough and comprehensive education.
It is worth mentioning that I am in no way arguing that private school should be abolished, or even that public schools provide a superior education. I know that there are private schools that do exemplary work, whose curriculum is completely devoid of political or theological considerations, where the primary objective is to give its students a proper education based on good scholarship and proper critical thinking skills. Hence, I take no issue with there presence in the greater educational system, serving as an alternative to parents who are considering it as a viable venue by which to educate their children.
My main point here is to argue that public schools are necessary as a social service. Furthermore, my aim is to counter the view prevalent in my neck of the woods (conservative, libertarian-leaning America), where people are inclined to argue against public education because they feel uncomfortable with the way they are funded (i.e. taxes), or don’t like the lesson plan being taught.
If, for instance, you are a parent who prefers for your child not to learn about evolutionary biology, or analyze a work of literature you find vulgar, and opt out for the private school route to avoid the implications you think such things will have on your child’s greater thinking, you have the right to do so without considering my feelings on the matter; nor would I even try to suggest that you in anyway ought to take my considerations on the subject seriously. However, if you come to this conclusion, and therefore insist not just that other parents should follow your lead, but that the educational system needs to be designed in such a way as to undermine the existence of the public school model, you have essentially forced me to engage you on the matter.
My position does not stem from a desire to satisfy the axiomatic precept of my political or theological identification, but from a recognition that many members of society benefit from–and are dependent on–the existence of public schools to educate their children; in hope that a decent education will provide at least some chance of letting them rise higher in the economic hierarchy than their parents. I see no reason why I should stand in the way of this hope, or concede the argument to those who aim to do just that.