Private Schools vs. Public Schools – Experts Weigh In

Posted by: John S Kiernan

Every parent wants the best for their children, including safety, success, love and happiness. And in this day in age, much of that is predicated on a good education. After all, the average person with a bachelor’s degree earns nearly twice as much as the average high school graduate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while other research has shown that murder and assault rates tend to fall as graduation rates rise.

But times are tough, and neither kids nor education is cheap. It costs more than $245,000 to raise the average child to the age of 18, the average four-year public-college education costs nearly $100,000, and those numbers figure to be significantly higher for children who exclusively attend private schools. But while this daunting financial burden prices many folks out of the private-school world, are they really missing anything?

Sure, the private-school crowd would like to think that all their money is having some positive effect, and many members no doubt enjoy a certain self-ascribed feeling of superiority as a result. But academic research indicates only modest differences in the achievement levels of private-school and public-school students. For instance, a 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that public-school fourth-graders scored much higher in math than their private-school counterparts, while private-school eighth-graders were far better readers than their public-school equivalents. Fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math were basically a wash. A subsequent study by the Center on Education Policy similarly found no statistically significant difference in the performance of students at private schools, parochial schools, public schools of choice and traditional public schools. It did, however, conclude that, “Family, in all of its dimensions, has a major influence on student achievement.”

With that being said, every school, child, situation and opinion is a bit different. So we asked a panel of leading education-policy experts to pick a side in the private-vs.-public debate in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the issue. You can check out their responses – including 5 votes for public schools, 3 for private schools and 6 for neither – below.

Why Public Schools Are Better

Highlights:

  • “Most of the ‘effects’ of private education are attributable to families’ influences on children as they grow up, and the family resources and decisions that place these children in private schools – not the private school per se. If there is an effect of private schooling, it is due primarily to the influence of peers on learning and motivation, which tends to be somewhat greater in private school classrooms. In contrast, the evidence is reasonably strong that public schooling has a positive effect on student achievement independent of family factors and in fact compensates for some of the challenges of lower socioeconomic family circumstances.”

    Robert Pianta, Ph.D. // Dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

  • “Each type of school has its strengths and weaknesses. But this is a debate, and I have to pick a side, so I’m going with public schools. And I’m doing that for an important reason: quality control. People love to complain about teacher licensing and certification, but it does assure a minimum level of teaching quality. In private schools, where licensing and certification are usually not an issue, you lose that minimum quality guarantee. At the same time, that situation leads many private schools to have a wider range of teacher quality.”

    Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D. // Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development, Johns Hopkins University School of Education

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Zoe Burkholder

Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University

Originally called “common schools,” American public schools are designed to educate all children “in common” to prepare them to live and work in a modern, democratic society. Public schools work best when parents opt in, because when parents opt out—by choosing private schools, home schooling, or charter schools—they remove themselves from the shared obligations of democratic citizenship.

What is the relationship between public schools and democracy? More specifically, why did Americans decide more than a century and a half ago to tax ourselves to support public schools—regardless of whether or not we had children who used them?

To the Americans who created public schools, the answer was simple: the common schools would train children for their duties as democratic citizens.

It’s no accident that public schools first appeared between 1820 and 1860, a period of industrial growth and mass immigration. “All these ignorant native and foreign adults are now voters, and have a share in the government of the nation,” fretted educational reformer Catharine Beecher in 1835. “And we must educate the nation, or be dashed in pieces, amid all the terrors of the wild fanaticism, infidel recklessness, and political strife, of an ungoverned, ignorant, and unprincipled populace.”

While Beecher viewed public schools as a way to assimilate “ignorant” immigrants, others espoused slightly different opinions. Horace Mann famously called common schools “a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery,” suggesting that no matter what social class an American child was born into, he or she would have an equal chance at life thanks to a free, high quality public education.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass took the goal of public schools further, pointing out that by studying together, black and white children would break down racial stereotypes. In 1859 he made the radical claim that free blacks should prioritize educational equality over equal suffrage. Douglass believed that public schools could do what voting rights could not—abolish the stigma of “caste” that haunted black Americans. He elaborated, “The nature of the contact, as a caste abolisher, is altogether in favor of the school contact: compare the craft, the excitement, the repulsions on election day with the candor, the freedom and the attractions of the schoolhouse and play-grounds.”

While our goals for public education have evolved, these early reformers articulated ideals that hold true today. American public schools prepare youth for citizenship, offer all children the chance to advance economically, and break down irrational prejudices. These accomplishments are more than just idealistic aspirations—they are habits of mind and elements of culture that fortify American democracy. Public schools are the only American institution designed to accomplish these crucial goals.

More than one hundred years ago, the American philosopher John Dewey explained why all citizens should support public schools. He said simply, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

Robert Pianta

Novartis Professor of Education and Dean of the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia

Public education is an under-appreciated asset.

From nearly every key vantage point, public schools in the United States manage the challenges of educating a stunningly varied population of students to a far greater degree of success than do private schools. Unfortunately, this is not widely known and the reasons not well understood. It is unfortunate that in this debate, opinion, personal anecdotes and conventional wisdom substitute for actual evidence. On first impression, one might think private schools do a better job – and a quick scan of the typical private school in the U.S. might lead one to this conclusion – well-behaved and high achieving students learning in a place with great facilities and smart teachers. But in studies in which thousands of classrooms (public and private) have been observed and students’ learning assessed net the impact of socioeconomic and family background, it’s quite clear that the differences are few and those that do exist favor public education.

From the standpoint of contributions to student learning gains as a function of the school itself, public education shows stronger impacts on learning once you factor out the very powerful influence of family socioeconomic status. Most of the “effects” of private education are attributable to families’ influences on children as they grow up, and the family resources and decisions that place these children in private schools – not the private school per se. If there is an effect of private schooling, it is due primarily to the influence of peers on learning and motivation, which tends to be somewhat greater in private school classrooms.

In contrast, the evidence is reasonably strong that public schooling has a positive effect on student achievement independent of family factors and in fact compensates for some of the challenges of lower socioeconomic family circumstances. Moreover, in our observational studies in classrooms, we find basically no difference at all between the quality of teaching in public vs. private classrooms. We actually see more variation in teaching quality in private school samples, including a greater range at the lower end of the scale.

Remember, private schools, in aggregate, are a very mixed lot and the mode is not the stereotypic elite prep school. Remember that most of the substantial problems in American education are situated in urban school systems and in our most rural areas – and are largely attributable to the very different but also very serious challenges faced by these communities. Private schools will not fix those challenges. Given the evidence that shows few, if any, differences in the impact of public and private schools, the tremendous variation in the characteristics of students enrolled in public schools, and the mandate to serve all children, public schools should be far more well-regarded in contemporary American discourse on education.

Paul Teske

Distinguished Professor and Dean of the School of Public Affairs at University of Colorado Denver

Public schools are at the heart of American education. About 90% of American K-12 students are served by public schools, a percentage that has been pretty consistent over time.

Private schools play a role as well, but a far smaller one. Of course, it is valuable to have both sectors serving students, especially in giving many parents a choice for their children. This is particularly true for parents seeking a religious-based education, as about 80% of private schools have a religious affiliation. And every student who is enrolled in private school does reduce the costs of the public-sector system, which no longer has to serve that student.

Ultimately, we need both sectors, but the fastest growing types of schools are charter schools. Charters are public schools for sure, but ones that might utilize some ideas and flexibility that private schools hold. So, they blend the sectors just a bit.

The great advantage of public schools is that they are “free” to students, in all states, as they are supported mostly by tax revenues paid by all citizens, mainly state and local taxes but also some federal financial support. Public schools then provide a “public good.” Related to that, public schools must serve “all comers,” and they can’t pick and choose their students. Private schools charge tuition, which not all families can afford, and private schools with more applicants than seats available can choose the student body they want to serve.

In addition, in most states, private schools do not have to take the same standardized tests, as do students in public schools, so it can be difficult to assess them, in an “apples to apples” manner, in terms of how private school students are actually performing.

Research on the performance of public versus private school students is mixed, but when the socio-economic status of the students is “controlled for,” most studies show pretty similar levels of performance. Similarly, in studies of low-income students getting vouchers to attend private schools, the results are mixed – some students do better in private schools using the vouchers, but others do not, and the results are not consistently strong or positive.

Compared to public schools, because of the tuition costs, private schools look more elite, serving more wealthy families. But in fairness, some private schools are able to keep their tuition relatively low, or to provide scholarships to lower income students. For many years, inner city Catholic schools have served a range of students, giving them choices at a low tuition level, and perhaps providing some useful competition for public schools.

When we look to higher education, beyond K-12, the argument for public schools is even more solid. Even with state taxpayer support of public higher education eroding fast, tuition bills at public institutions are still well below those of private colleges and universities. And the recent track record of for-profit private higher education is quite unimpressive – with very high debt loads for many students, degrees with questionable employment value, and, appropriately, leading to much more federal regulation and accreditation concerns about the quality of many of these programs. In higher education, then, the quality of public education is high and the costs are still relatively low.

Jonathan Plucker

Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University School of Education

This is a perennial debate, and there are no easy answers. Research points to few differences between public and private schools if you control for socioeconomic status, family structure and prior achievement. Essentially, both public and private schools tend to have similar “value added” regarding student achievement (Some studies actually find a small advantage for public schools). There may be some long-term networking benefits to private schools, but that evidence is mostly anecdotal.

My children have each attended both public and private schools, and our personal experiences have been mixed with both types of schools. I’ve also been on the board of directors for a private school. Each type of school has its strengths and weaknesses.

But this is a debate, and I have to pick a side, so I’m going with public schools. And I’m doing that for an important reason: quality control. People love to complain about teacher licensing and certification, but it does assure a minimum level of teaching quality. In private schools, where licensing and certification are usually not an issue, you lose that minimum quality guarantee. At the same time, that situation leads many private schools to have a wider range of teacher quality.

As a case in point, my children have had amazing teachers in private schools. But one of my children encountered some of the worst instruction I’ve ever seen. In the public schools, they’ve had average to above average teaching across the board. This, in a nutshell, is the power and limitations of government regulation (of which teacher licensing is a part): You create a level of minimum competency, but you also make it harder for the exceptional performer to work their magic.

One important caveat: This debate totally depends on which specific schools we’re comparing. In that way, this debate reminds me of a question that I’m often asked, “Which country has better schools, the U.S. or China/Finland/etc.?” My response is always, “Well, which schools are we talking about?” I can pick schools in China that are far superior to the average American school; but I can point you to specific American schools that are heads and shoulders better than what I see on average in China or Finland or India.

For the same reasons, we need to be sensitive to the fact that comparing public vs. private schools in general is an imprecise exercise. I can recommend some awesome public schools in this country, in rural, suburban, and urban settings. But I can also identify some rather weak public schools in those same settings, and the same is true for private schools. In the end, families really have to do their homework to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the options they have before them. Americans currently have a range of both public and private K-12 options that is historically unprecedented: But if you don’t exercise due diligence to figure out which one is most likely to meet your child’s needs, you’re essentially rolling the dice.

Marybeth Gasman

Professor of Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania

I don’t believe in private schools at the K-12 level. I believe that all children should attend public schools throughout the country and that communities, the state, and the federal government should ensure that each student has an equal and equitable, public K-12 education. Is this a radical view? Perhaps. However, I think that if we all cared about public schools, invested in public schools and sent our children to public schools, we would have better public schools. Nations with the strongest public schools, such as Finland, Japan, and Sweden, invest in their schools, have a high regard for teachers, and realize that their investment makes their entire country stronger across all areas. Why can’t we learn from these examples? For too long, parents have been pulling their children out of public schools — afraid that these schools will somehow damage children. However, if these same parents worked for public education, invested in it, and voted for politicians that value public education, they would have public schools about which they feel comfortable and good. We have to care about all children — regardless of race and class — rather than only our own.

The only way to achieve full equity in the United States among all of our citizens is to have equity in the public schools. We don’t have another option. I am particularly concerned by any White liberals who send their children to private schools as I think that a liberal perspective demands attention and support for public schools. All too often, I hear those who supposedly support equity and equality, even in the area of education, yet, don’t send their children to public schools. I often here conservatives object to public schools and feel no responsibility toward the children in them, but, although I disagree, I am more disappointed in liberals. It is impossible for us to make change and to uplift low-income communities, especially communities of color, without access to strong public education.

And in case you are wondering, I sent my daughter to public school K-12 in the city of Philadelphia. She benefits from highly diverse public schools in rich ways, including a strong academic program, cultural enrichment, and a sense of understanding of social justice. I’d like all of our children to graduate with these characteristics.

Why Private Schools Are Better

Highlights:

  • “Public schooling – schools run by government – is un-American. By its very nature it creates inequality, forces people into conflict and smothers innovation. Private schooling, in contrast – with money following children and educators able to teach as they want – is moored in freedom and equality.”

    Neal P. McCluskey, Ph.D. // Director, Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute

  • “One of the least known facts about private schools is that they promote civic values. Study after study reports that students that attend private schools end up with higher levels of political tolerance, political knowledge, political activity and community involvement. Private schools also are becoming more diverse, as their enrollments increasingly include minority and low-income students. Private schooling enhances the social fabric of our nation.”

    Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D. // Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice, Department of Education Reform, University of Arkansas

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Neal P. McCluskey

Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at Cato Institute

Public schooling – schools run by government – is un-American. By its very nature it creates inequality, forces people into conflict and smothers innovation. Private schooling, in contrast – with money following children and educators able to teach as they want – is moored in freedom and equality.

When people contemplate inequality, they tend to think about unequal access or outcomes. Public schooling suffers mightily in those areas, with the well-to-do able to access good public schools by purchasing homes in affluent districts. And the wealthy tend to see much better outcomes in terms of test scores, college-going, and jobs. These are not wholly a function of the K-12 schools – what children experience outside of school has a greater impact on their lives than what happens in it – but the huge barrier to accessing a good school called “the price of a house” does not help.

That said, the inequality that is even more distinctly un-American is inequality under the law. With all people having to fund government schools, but only those able to exercise the most political power controlling them, that is what public schooling creates.

Want evolution taught, but your district is dominated by creationists? Too bad. Mexican-American, and you want a course on your history? You’re out of luck in many districts. Religious, and you believe faith is essential to your child’s education? You are absolutely unequal; teaching religion is impermissible in any public school, but religious people must still pay for them. Of course, for over a century many public schools were de facto Protestant institutions, rendering Jews, Catholics, atheists and others second-class citizens.

The sad product of this winner-take-all system is not just inequality, but often painful social conflict, as neighbors are forced to battle neighbors to get what they want from the schools. The Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map contains nearly 1,500 values and identity-based conflicts in districts around the country, and probably just captures a fraction – those that make headlines—of such battles. What keeps such conflagrations from being even more common? Either one side wins, perpetuating discrimination, or all sides agree to lowest-common-denominator – but inoffensive – content, such as biology courses free of human origins, or reading lists bereft of intellectually challenging literature.

By allowing people to choose schools, private schooling steps on the fuse of social conflict, empowering all people to access coherent, rigorous content consistent with their values and desires, and no longer pricing access at the cost of a house. It allows educators to establish schools as they see fit, not according to hand-tying rules dictated by districts, states, or Washington. And it enables teachers to specialize in the needs of unique children, and innovate with new pedagogical approaches and ideas.

America is about liberty, equality under the law and dynamism. When it comes to education, only private schooling is, too.

Patrick J. Wolf

Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions

Private schools are an excellent complement to public schools in the U.S., K-12 education system. They tend to be distinctive, with smaller enrollments and a variety of educational approaches that provide parents with meaningful alternatives to traditional public schools. Many parents want religious values and practices to be part of their child’s daily educational experience. Since the 1950s, a religious environment only can be found in private schools.

Much social science research has demonstrated the comparative advantages of private schools over public schools in delivering an effective education to students. Starting with studies by the eminent sociologist James Coleman in the 1980s and continuing to this day, private schools have been found to increase dramatically the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment for students from similar backgrounds. For example, in an experimental evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led from 2004-2011, we found that highly disadvantaged students graduated from high school at a rate that was 21 percentage points higher if they used a school voucher to attend a private school than if they were members of the experimental control group. That means that access to private schooling led to a 30 percent increase in the high school graduation rate of DC students, boosting it from 70 percent to 91 percent.

There is also evidence that private schooling tends to increase student achievement, especially for low-income students and racial minorities. Coleman and his colleagues reported that Catholic schools had a clear positive effect on the test scores of disadvantaged students but likely had no net effect on the achievement of advantaged students. A total of 15 rigorous experimental evaluations have been performed on private school voucher and scholarship programs in the U.S. Of these studies that are able to isolate the impact of access to private schooling on student outcomes, 10 reported positive effects of private schooling on achievement either overall or for some important subgroups of students. Three of the experimental studies found no significant effects of private schooling on student test scores and two studies reported negative effects at least in the initial years of program implementation.

One of the least known facts about private schools is that they promote civic values. Study after study reports that students that attend private schools end up with higher levels of political tolerance, political knowledge, political activity and community involvement. Private schools also are becoming more diverse, as their enrollments increasingly include minority and low-income students. Private schooling enhances the social fabric of our nation.

Ben DeGrow

Director of Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Today, 10 times the number of American students attend public schools as private schools. But ask school-age parents where they would send their children if given their preference, and the numbers look dramatically different. A 2015 Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey found 41 percent of parents would prefer private schools, compared to 48 percent for traditional or charter public schools.

The question isn’t public vs. private schools per se, because each sector within the U.S. contains a wide distribution of quality. Rather, the question should be how we can best use both government-run and private schools to educate children. Public education systems that use both types of schools well, promote school-level autonomy, limit government regulations and provide healthy competition among schools to meet parents’ needs. Research suggests that these types of systems often yield better results for students, families and communities.

Private schools can do a lot more than most people give them credit for. For instance, British education policy professor James Tooley has documented the thriving existence of independent private schools serving some of the world’s poorest children in places like the slums of Hyderabad, India, Ghana’s low-income Ga District, and Nigeria’s Lagos State. In these places, most children are educated privately, because government-run schools are too difficult and expensive to travel to. These students register significantly better math and English test scores than their government school peers.

Examples exist on American shores, too. Here in Michigan, schools are more expensive to operate and the scales are tipped heavily against private schools by a state constitution that denies the possibility of indirect government support. Nonetheless, a combination of corporate work partnerships and philanthropy help low-income families afford Detroit Cristo Rey High School, which increases students’ chances to graduate college and succeed in life.

Unlike Michigan, nearly half of states have programs that, in part, publicly fund enrollment in private schools. Documented parental satisfaction with their new schools is off the charts, whether among families of special-needs students in Arizona and Florida, or lower-income families in Indiana and New Hampshire.

Peer-reviewed studies repeatedly have identified modest academic benefits from these programs. Many subgroups of students who switch to private schools record higher test scores. In Milwaukee, those who persist are much more likely than their neighboring public school peers to graduate on time and even to stay out of trouble with the law. Most studies across the nation also find exposure to private education moves students toward greater social tolerance, community volunteerism and participation in the political process.

The most striking and consistent finding, though, is that these private school choice programs raise the bar of public school performance. Apparently, competition is a motivator even in education. Opening more doors to private education is a winning formula for students across the board, regardless of which type of school they attend.

Why Neither Is The Answer

Highlights:

  • “A high-quality public education should be a fundamental right of every student in America. Unfortunately, too many students aren’t getting an education that prepares them well for college or careers. Most of these poorly served students come from low-income neighborhoods, often from minority backgrounds, and they deserve better than our society has been providing.

    These students often have no escape hatch from low-quality public schools. While wealthier families can choose a private school education, middle- and lower-income students depend on policymakers and educators to make public education better. One way to do that is to redefine what public school is – focusing less on who runs a school and more on the student outcomes the school achieves. Charter public schools are leading the way.”

    Nina Rees // President and CEO, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

  • “In our view, parents know their kids better than bureaucrats, and parents should be the ones making educational choices to meet their kids’ needs, whether that’s a traditional public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment. That’s why we support full and unencumbered educational choice programs across the United States that put parents in the driver’s seat of learning by giving them control over the funds allocated for their child’s education.”

    Robert C. Enlow // President and CEO, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

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Robert C. Enlow

President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Far too often, the debate about school choice and education reform focuses on “the versus” — charter schools versus traditional schools, parents versus educators, unions versus reformers and public schools versus private schools.

Pitting one school type against another — instead of focusing on the process of choosing, which empowers families to find the right educational fit for their children – is unfortunate and unnecessary.

When it comes to school type, we believe that government has a responsibility to educate the public, but that doesn’t mean writing every child a mandatory prescription for a “state-run public school” as it’s been defined over the past 60 years. Our duty to ensure that we educate our children using public funds is not the same thing as forcing children to attend a public school based on their zip code.

In our view, parents know their kids better than bureaucrats, and parents should be the ones making educational choices to meet their kids’ needs, whether that’s a traditional public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment. That’s why we support full and unencumbered educational choice programs across the United States that put parents in the driver’s seat of learning by giving them control over the funds allocated for their child’s education.

For a long time, the only choice that existed was paying private school tuition — a tremendous burden for most families — or paying to move to a new home inside the boundaries of a “good” district.

Today, as a result of increased parental choice in education, traditional public education by ZIP Code is on its way out. Between 2001 and 2013, families making non-residential school choices — via open public school enrollment, charter schools, home schooling and private schools — increased by 21 percent. Roughly 20 million children, just over 40 percent of the K-12 population in our nation, now use one of those four K-12 options.

Arguing that one delivery model is unilaterally better than another assumes that those to whom an education is being delivered — our students — all fit neatly in a single bucket. Any parent knows that no two kids are alike, and the same is true of their learning styles.

Ultimately, we have to stop thinking about this debate as public versus private and start focusing on those who are making the choice: families who deserve the opportunity to find the best fit — whatever that might be — to educate their kids.

Dan Butin

Full Professor in, and Founding Dean of, the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College

The debate of “public versus private schools” is actually a debate about choice for individuals and thus about fairness for our society.

It is very easy to get caught up in the specifics of a debate about choosing a public or private school for your child. The key variables for making such a decision could be about cost, about the curriculum, about the school culture, about testing, or a myriad of other topics that parents care about. And in general, those issues matter. Take cost: a public school is free; a private Catholic school tuition is about $3,000; and well-regarded independent schools can run as much $20,000 per year or even more. Similarly, a Catholic school will have a very different culture from a Montessori school, which itself will have a very different school culture from a public charter school focusing on the performing arts.

But bound up in these differences is the fact that some parents actually have the ability to choose where to send their child. This, it seems to me, is the real debate. And, unfortunately, all too often most parents, and especially parents that do not have the financial means and who live in urban and rural communities with under-resourced and over-stressed school systems, do not have the luxury of a variety of high-quality schooling options. Most of these parents simply send their child to their local neighborhood school and hope for the best. Even when choices exist in these communities, the available options may not be much better. So even though 45 states and the District of Columbia have some forms of school choice laws, the on-the-ground reality is that the public versus private school debate feels like another universe.

This stark reality thus says much about the lack of fairness in our society. Yes, some families will get lucky in a charter school’s lottery for available slots, or have connections, or have the gumption to push for local changes and options, or have the financial means to send their child to a boarding school, or move jobs and locations to get their child to a better school system, or find some other way to foster a better life for their children. But these examples are few and far between. More than eight out of ten schoolchildren attend the local public school closest to them. That’s just the fact.

So, yes, we as a society are making progress as we create “district choice” models or schools-within-a-school models where multiple small high schools are all housed in one large building or through different forms of “school choice” legislation. But let’s not lose sight of the reality that even as we debate tuition versus school culture versus curriculum versus whatever else, the other debate we should be having at the exact same time is how do we begin to offer these options to a whole lot more parents and children.

Nina Rees

President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

A high-quality public education should be a fundamental right of every student in America. Unfortunately, too many students aren’t getting an education that prepares them well for college or careers. Most of these poorly served students come from low-income neighborhoods, often from minority backgrounds, and they deserve better than our society has been providing.

These students often have no escape hatch from low-quality public schools. While wealthier families can choose a private school education, middle- and lower-income students depend on policymakers and educators to make public education better.

One way to do that is to redefine what public school is – focusing less on who runs a school and more on the student outcomes the school achieves. Charter public schools are leading the way.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This gives parents more choices about the kind of school their child attends, because each school can make its own decisions about curriculum, the use of technology, the length of its school day and school year, and more. Charter schools are demonstrating that public schools don’t have to be run like factories, with a central school board and administration treating students like standardized widgets.

Research shows that charter public schools are producing big gains for students, particularly those in urban areas, where attending a charter school can result in the equivalent of months of extra learning time. Why these impressive results? Because charter school leaders are free to manage their schools with students’ needs top of mind. If something isn’t working, they change it. If something is working, they double down. Less bureaucracy leads to more innovation and faster adaptation.

Some critics complain that charter schools are “un-democratic” because they are overseen by state-approved school authorizers rather than locally elected school boards. But this overlooks an important fact: School boards themselves are often composed of members elected with little voter turnout after big-dollar races financed by one faction or another, particularly teachers’ unions. As a result, district-run public schools can get locked in political battles than put students’ needs on the back burner. Charter schools, by contrast, face the ultimate democratic test: free choice. Parents can choose to enroll their child in a charter school and, if the school doesn’t meet expectations, find a better option.

Charter school enrollment has been growing by leaps and bounds as parents look for good public school options. Today, about 3 million students attend charter schools across 43 states and Washington, DC. State laws have a major impact on whether charter schools can expand to serve more students. Federal funding is a factor, too, as is private philanthropic support, which helps to make up for the fact that charter schools typically receive less state and local funding than district-run schools.

Charter schools are proving that public schools can do better – even in neighborhoods and among students whom traditional public schools have long neglected. We should strive to give more families charter school options. They are essential to securing every student’s right to a first-rate public education.

Jonathan Zimmerman

Professor of Education and History, and Director of the History of Education Program in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University

The current Republican Party platform makes the requisite nod to school vouchers, a centerpiece of GOP education policy for the past several decades. As a Democrat, I’m not supposed to support the idea of using public dollars to help a child go to a private school.

But I do. Or, rather, I would support it… if the vouchers were distributed progressively, so that poor kids received larger ones.

And that’s not part of the Republican playbook, of course. It was put forth four decades ago by a number of prominent left-wing thinkers, including teacher-author Jonathan Kozol and Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks. And it reminds us about the progressive potential of vouchers, which liberals too often dismiss as an evil conservative plot to gut the public schools.

Jencks drafted a report on vouchers in 1970 for Richard Nixon’s White House, which supported other liberal social experiments like bilingual education and the Environmental Protection Agency. But Jencks’ plan didn’t look anything like today’s GOP-backed voucher programs in 13 states and the District of Columbia, where all participants receive the same amount of money to attend the school of their choice.

Instead, Jencks proposed providing poorer kids with vouchers worth twice as much as middle-class students received. His plan also required participating schools to accept low-income kids’ vouchers as full payment, giving another leg up to children who had been left behind. Finally, Jencks said that public schools—not just private ones—should be required to admit a certain percentage of poor students.

Back in 2012, believe it or not, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney likewise proposed that poor kids be able to use federal vouchers to enroll in public schools outside their own districts. The idea went nowhere, of course, because parents in Scarsdale don’t want kids from the Bronx in their classrooms.

And that’s the crux of the problem. Under the standard GOP plan, kids’ vouchers aren’t big enough to let them attend tony independent schools; meanwhile, our vaunted system of local control keeps them out of elite public ones.

So we also shouldn’t be surprised that research on vouchers has failed to demonstrate significant academic benefits for the kids who use them. Most recently, a Brookings Institution study of statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana showed that students receiving vouchers to attend private schools actually scored lower on math and reading tests than similar students in the public schools.

Most of the state voucher plans give kids the state per-pupil allocation, which doesn’t buy you a whole lot in the private school market. The only thing that would make a difference would be giving the kids more money, and requiring more schools – public and private – to accept them.

“A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status,” the Republican platform declares. That’s true. But to change it, we’d have to reimagine vouchers altogether. And neither political party is in the mood for that.

Paul Thomas

Professor of Education at Furman University

Essentially, nearly everything we believe in the U.S. about formal schooling is wrong.

Public schools are the Great Equalizer, but the U.S. public school system is subpar compared internationally; private schools (and choice schooling such as charter schools) outperform traditional public schools (TPS); and thus, market forces are essential for reforming those TPS — all of which are factually misleading at best, and demonstrably false at worst.

Let’s consider carefully these enduring but flawed narratives about public and private schools in the U.S.

While part of the America Dream certainly includes a belief that universal public education is essential to a democracy, very little evidence supports that public schools have or even can create equity under the weight of powerful social forces such as racism, classism, and sexism. In fact, public and private schooling often reflect and perpetuate social inequity.

Neighborhood TPS often mirror the good and bad of the communities they serve, and private (and charter) schools tend to create racial and class segregation.

While many in the U.S. certainly believe formal schooling should be the Great Equalizer, we must admit that neither historically nor during the high-stakes accountability era have TPS or private schools erased social inequity.

Strongly related to this first reality check about education are the next two flawed beliefs: TPS rank poorly internationally and private (and charter) schools outperform our TPS.

As Gerald Bracey and many others have shown, there simply is no clear positive correlation between the so-called quality of education and any state’s or country’s economic success. But just as TPS reflect the communities they serve, international comparisons of school quality based on test scores reflect mostly relative poverty and wealth of the students — not the quality of the education in those schools.

This problem exposes what test scores actually measure: about 60% of test scores are correlated to the socioeconomic status of the students’ homes, with school quality accounting for about 20% and teacher quality only about 10-15%. Therefore, when private schools are selective (by race and social class) — and when charter schools benefit from both selectivity and attrition — the raw test data appear to show greater quality; however, research shows that types of schools (TPS, private, charter, etc.) are indistinguishable in quality.

Finally, then, for market forces to work as reform mechanisms, real quality differences would have to exist among types of schools. Since those differences do not exist, and since formal schooling has never achieved a key outcome of being the Great Equalizer, much about how we run and reform schools is as flawed as our unwarranted beliefs about public and private schools.

Instead of pitting public and private schools, then, we need to step back to square one: committing to the possibility of schools as the Great Equalizer, and then creating first TPS that themselves are grounded in equity, not accountability or competition.

Schools regardless of type can be change agents only if they are unlike the larger context they are intended to change.

Jason Bedrick

Policy Analyst in the Center for Educational Freedom at Cato Institute

Public or Private, What Students Need Is Educational Choice

When parents are looking for a school for their children, their primary concern isn’t whether the school is run by the government or a private entity. They want to know that the school provides a high-quality education in line with their values that meets the unique needs of their children.

The real question isn’t “public vs. private” but what sort of education system delivers what parents want and kids need. Assigning children to district schools based on the location of the home that their parents can afford might work for some families, especially those who can afford to live in expensive areas with better schools. But district-based schooling leaves low-income families behind. Instead, our education system should directly empower families to choose the schools that work best for them.

Students have diverse educational needs. They have varying aptitudes and interests and learn better in different environments. No school can be all things to all students. No school can meet all the unique needs of all the children who just happen to live nearby. Even the highest-performing schools aren’t necessarily the right fit for some students. Empowering families with educational choice through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or education savings accounts enables them to select the education providers that are the best match for their kids.

District schools are subject to political control, which produces winners and losers. At best, district schools will reflect the values and preferences of the majority of citizens in a given area. Other times they even reflect the values and preferences of a mere plurality or a politically powerful minority. The zero-sum nature of political control forces citizens into conflict with each other. By contrast, a system of educational choice avoids social strife and fosters social harmony by allowing parents with differing views of education each to have their preferences met without forcing their views on their unwilling neighbors.

Perhaps most importantly, research shows that educational choice works. The near-consensus of random-assignment studies — the gold standard of social science research — finds that educational choice programs improve students’ academic performance and increases their likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in college.

Not only do participating students benefit, but so do those who remain in their assigned schools. More than 30 studies find that choice programs produce modest but statistically significant positive effects in district schools as a result of the increased choice and competition.

Whether they exercise choice or not, all students benefit from having more choices.