A Debate On Public Versus Private Schools

School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school
School classroom with school desks and blackboard in Japanese high school

I just contributed to a panel of educational policy experts debating the perennial question of public versus private schools. You can see the entire debate here and my particular response here.

What is interesting is the varied way in which the twelve of us approached the issue.

Four scholars were "for" public schools, all focusing to one extent or another on two key arguments: first, that the preponderance of research showed minimal advantage to private schools once you took into consideration mediating variables such as types of schooling and families' socioeconomic status; and second, that public schools fundamentally a "public good" and thus "the great equalizer" in our society.

Three scholars, alternatively, were "for" private schools. While they each offered specific research and examples to substantiate private schools, their fundamental argument focused on the notion of choice and that private schools undercut the bureaucracy and monopoly of the dominant and thus unequal public school system. This type of argument - let's call it education as a private good - is in direct contradistinction to the public good argument. It suggest that creating a seemingly singular public good undermines lots of other issues - such as religious freedom - and thus is not truly good for the many different "publics" out there.

Finally, four scholars, including me, more or less said that neither side of the debate was the right one to be on. In different ways we focused on the fact that the debate of "public versus private schools" is actually a debate about choice for individuals and thus about fairness for our society. (One other scholar declared the entire system broken and suggested that we in essence just have to start over.)

Schooling can thus be viewed as both a mirror and a prism by which we understand and interpret our most basic and critical values. And it is here where it becomes ever clearer that the debates we have are usually conversations that sail past each other as we are, in effect, arguing about different things with differing assumptions of what is most valued. It is both a fascinating and deeply frustrating process.