Private Schools Encourage Improvement in Public Schools

Published October 6, 2012

In big cities, as many as 80 percent of public school parents say they would send their children to parochial or independent schools if they could afford tuition. Scholarships for poor families are heavily oversubscribed, as are charter schools, which are government-funded but run by private boards. Do private schools deserve their reputations and consumer preference?

In 2007, I tried to track down all studies of this question and summarized the findings in the book School Choice: The Findings. Included were studies that compared similar students in private and nearby public schools.

Since 2007, research continued to show that, on average, private school students excel in academic skills such as reading comprehension and knowledge in such subjects as English, mathematics, and science. Studies, moreover, show that the higher the percentage of students attending private schools, including charters, in a locality or state, the higher the average achievement of all schools.

Studies of countries show the same pattern. Private schools not only raise the overall average but set high standards and promote competition among all schools.

Lower Costs, Happier Customers
Some of the comparative U.S. studies of public schools and private schools (including charters) report on parents’ satisfaction, reputation among nearby citizens, and the degree to which students were involved in the life of the school and engaged in volunteer work, such as tutoring other students and helping in community affairs. Again, private schools excelled.

Particularly important is the average annual per-student cost of schools, since the United States typically ranks near the top even though its average student achievement lags behind most other advanced economies. On average, educating students at private schools costs about half as much as it does at nearby public schools.

Such findings are hardly restricted to schools. Other things being equal, an amazing variety of private organizations perform, on average, better than government-run organizations at lower costs, and they are more satisfying to their staffs and their customers. These studies examined, among others, airlines, banks, bus service, debt collection, electric and water utilities, forestry, hospitals, housing, railroads, refuse collection, and weather forecasting. U.S. and foreign governments are even beginning to privatize prisons, police, fire protection, and public pensions.

Private competition works well for consumers, allows successful contenders to thrive, and causes failing organizations to change or close. In private enterprise such “creative destruction” is both expected and a sign of progress.

Monopolies Generate Failure
In contrast, U.S. public schools have deteriorated in the last century. In the past, local citizens governed about 115,000 school districts nationwide, some with only a single school for a few hundred students or even less. States consolidated these into about 15,000 much larger districts today. Chicago, for example, has more than 600 public schools, one with more than 4,000 students. For this reason, today’s school boards are poorly informed about the schools under their jurisdiction.

At the same time, states and the federal government imposed ever more complications and sometimes-conflicting regulations on the public schools, which removed much of local boards’ control over school policy. Moreover, national and local teachers unions increasingly exerted powerful and constraining forces on boards, representing their own interests rather than those of students.

In contrast, private schools are usually small, and their boards closely inform themselves about the school’s staff and programs. Unlike public schools, private school teachers, students, and parents know each other well. Seldom unionized, private schools pay teachers according to their contributions and performance and remove those who don’t pull their weight.

Private schools have another important advantage. Parents and students choose them, unlike public school students, who are usually assigned to a single school. Psychological studies show Americans are more enthusiastic about things they choose for themselves.

Specialization and Innovation
Today, the total number of charter schools in this country is about 5,000. About 60 percent have waiting lists. Charter boards, which typically control only one school, usually lack the time and breadth to carry out all their responsibilities. The Chicago International Charter School, now with 16 campuses, responded to this challenge by maintaining a small central staff while assigning for-profit and non-profit organizations to carry out a uniform curriculum.

The clear division of responsibility and work was efficient in allowing each group to concentrate on its strengths. It also allowed the board objectivity in holding the competing organizations accountable for achievement results, enrollment, and parent satisfaction. This model deserves expansion.

The next logical step in attaining effectiveness and efficiency is for-profit competition. In 1993 the Swedish government, with my advice, required local school district authorities to fund privately operated schools, including for-profit schools. Like traditional public schools, the flood of new private schools had to teach an approved curriculum and admit all applicants regardless of ability, socioeconomic level, and country of origin.

The rapidly changed system yielded excellent achievement results and parent satisfaction. By 2008, ten growing chains of schools operated, one with as many as 30 schools. The transformed system interjected not only competition among all schools but also new technologies including frequent Internet reporting to parents on students’ progress. Given our long history of successful capitalism, for-profit competition among schools seems likely to work just as well in capitalistic America as social-democratic Sweden.

Herbert J. Walberg is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. He chairs The Heartland Institute. This essay is adapted with permission from Hoover’s journal, Defining Ideas.

Image by vlasta2.