Public Is Not Private: Faulty Comparison 2

In a stack of papers called Reform.

  • Feb
  • 25
  • 2006

American Public Schools Versus Private Schools

The big problem with any kind of comparison between public and private school systems is that public schools have to take any student living in the attendance area. There are no tests to take, no essays to write. If you live within the marked area, you go to School X. Private schools only have to take those students they want to.

The Escape Valve

Private schools can be, and are, more selective about their clientele. If a student misbehaves or is a problem for some reason, the school simply does not accept tuition payments; it’s back to the public school system for Johnny. That escape valve skews any comparison between the two systems.

Do public or private schools perform better because of that private-school selectiveness? Is it in spite of that selectiveness? Would private schools perform as well as they do if they had to give an education to everyone who came their way? Is it because public schools have to attempt to educate everyone that they perform as poorly as they do?

Follow The Money

Another significant difference between public and private schools is funding. In addition to the essential funding of the school provided by tuition payments, private schools also seek private funding. That kind of funding is something that public schools can only do in limited amounts, if at all, and which private schools have free reign to rope in. Private schools regularly raise millions of dollars each year. That’s millions of dollars more to spend on teacher pay, facilities, novels, course offerings. Public schools? As far as I can tell, we raised $0 last year. That’s right, nada.

A Jay Mathews article from the archives tells a bit more about arguments for why public schools should not go after those funds. That article presents the idea that a system where one public school receives more funds than another is a problem for some people, though Mathews goes on to explain why it’s not. Of course, we need to acknowledge that a system of unequal public school funding already exists.

The inequities are glaring when comparing the education received in Palo Alto to Watsonville. One school has terrific, modern computer labs and an uplifting school environment of reletively new buildings. The other is often lucky to have even one computer per classroom, with buildings that are only as new as they absolutely need to be. One schools has students who tend to come from families where college is expected. The other has students who tend to come from families where work is expected, not as much emphasis placed on attending college.

Schools in basic-aid funding areas, those areas with such high property taxes that schools are funded fully through those taxes with state funding serving as a mere topping on the educational sundae, perform much better than most schools funded through revenue limit. And, generally, the lower the property taxes, the lower the performance on those standardized tests.

So if public schools that have more money to spend per pupil perform better on those academic indicators that NCLB and the public are so obsessed with, is it any surprise that private schools do the same? Private schools can ask for as much money as they need from parents. And if that ends up not being enough, they can seek other sources.

Private Schools Are Not Special

Private schools are under no obligation to provide special education resources. Meanwhile, public schools are required to spend a certain percentage of the budget on special education needs. I seem to recall that California is unique in that no other state requires such a large percentage of the budget to be spent on special ed.

You may be thinking that’s a good thing, that California is on the cutting edge of helping special education students. The problem is that this is money taken away from textbooks, electives, department budgets, school supplies, theater upgrades, and the like. In part, the intent behind the required spending on special education is correct and worthy. In practice, though, it means that California public schools are already behind in the amount of money free to spend where needed.

Certainly it means that public schools are behind private schools in terms of such spending since private schools do not have the same requirements as public schools.

Let’s Test!

The same applies to testing: while private schools may choose to opt into standardized testing to measure adequate yearly progress (AYP) or their academic performance indicator (API) scores, they are not required to. Nor are they required to employ teachers that have met any requirements other than what the school sets. Whereas public school teachers need to hold degrees for the courses they teach and must go through a teacher-training program, private school teachers can be anyone, even without any kind of preparation.

Where this makes the comparison between the two school systems unfair is that private schools are free to hire anyone at any time, without first checking with a district office; private schools have complete autonomy in teacher hiring or firing, with only self-imposed guidelines to adhere to. Due to NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” clause, public schools must meet federal guidelines and follow through by making documentation of meeting those guidelines public, held “accountable” in a way private schools are not.

Public schools are often stymied by district offices haggling over the number of teachers they think each school needs (allocations), with schools regularly needing more allocations than the district office is willing to provide. This effectively creates a hiring freeze until the district office is convinced or the beginning of the next school year. The latter usually comes first, so public schools are sent scrambling to hire a teacher for those 5th, 6th, and 7th period history classes that are fully loaded with students, but missing a teacher. Private schools can hire a teacher as soon as one is needed.

What Does This Show Us?

Can public schools be everything to everybody? Is that the source of poor performance in public schools? This is not the first time I’ve reached that conclusion and Laurie echoed a similar concern. I think it’s one worth looking into.

Maybe money does have something to do with quality of education. I’m a believer that public schools receive enough funding, but it is poorly spent, poorly managed, and poorly tracked. Per pupil spending does not make it to the classroom. It usually stops at the district office to pay for things like leather chairs.

We can’t say, though, that there’s enough money there and end the discussion. Yes, there may be enough money there. But examining the ways in which it is mandated to be spent, calculating the percentage of that funding that actually filters down to be spent on classroom learning, cutting deadwood who are paid to sit at a desk all day, all of those things need to happen. If education is funded to an amount that we are all happy with, we should be outraged that the money doesn’t make it into the classrooms, in addition to our anger over schools that “don’t perform.”


1. EllenK says:

[2/25/2006 - 4:58 pm]

Bravo. This has been my contention all along. While the media is quick to point out the lower costs of private schools they hardly ever mention that private schools have the one thing public schools do not-the ability to kick a kid out. Public schools have a mandate to educate every child in their attendance zone regardless of legal residency, language barriers, socio-economic level or disabilities. In fact, when I taught in a very good private school, the children with reading or other issues were told to leave and go to the nearby public school for aide. Just providing education for children is disabilities is a huge issue. In my high school we have a Bridging class for student three or more grades below level and a class for two severely mentally disabled girls. Just these two classes have two teachers and four aides. Plus special equipment and materials and a car for transporting the girls to outside therapy. All paid for through taxes. There’s not a private school in the state that would provide that kind of situation. In fact, in the last batch of freshmen, I got five who were from the local private Christian school. They were kicked out because they couldn’t cut the academics. So privates send us their rejects and then the public jeers at our lower achievements? I am surprised we can do as well as we do considering how little public support we recieve.

2. Todd says:

[2/25/2006 - 11:16 pm]

So, with the ability to ignore special ed and turn away low-skilled students, does this suggest that even private schools aren’t doing as well as they should?

The fact that private schools have the luxury to remove kids from their system who are not cutting it should mean that private schools perform better, by definition.

I can’t even imagine how our test scores would shoot through the roof if we didn’t include test scores of special ed students. Subtracting that population alone is likely enough for my school to hit the API goal of 800 last year. Now take out all the scores from ELL studnets with language problems or students who are simply not at grade level, all of whom are students private schools have the right to shun, and my campus would be the top ranked school in the district, if not county and state.

3. samantha says:

[4/7/2006 - 10:50 am]

well i go to a public school and have allways have i agree with many of the things you have said we have some low test scores because we have kids who do not want to try but there are those who realy need help and i am glad that they can go to our public schools and get the help that they need. well i have to do a ethnography project for my english class and i am doing it on how public schools are a like and diffrent. right know i have to find stuff out about it and you have helped my very much thank you

4. Todd says:

[4/7/2006 - 2:38 pm]

Thank you for the note, Samantha. I’m glad to have helped. Do you think that those kids who really need help wouldn’t be able to get it if not for public schools? Do you think that test scores really matter to students? If schools spent time explaining what the test scores mean for the school, would that make any difference in performance?

I’ll assume that you’re doing your project on how public schools are like and different than private schools. How’s it coming along? What have you found out?

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