Everywhere you look today you’ll find
profits prophets of doom bemoaning the quality of our public school system.
We’ve got too many failing schools, they say. The only thing to do is to invest in private and privatized institutions – vouchers, charters, ANYTHING but public.
But as education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski wrote in their landmark book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools there’s little evidence behind the hype. Public schools are far from perfect, but even given their deficiencies, they have benefits that far outweigh those of privatized schools. Indeed, market-based educational reform, wrote the Lubienskis, is “increasingly a belief system rather than a policy theory.”
Privatized schools are sometimes great at boosting standardized test scores, but when it comes to authentic indicators of student learning, they often fall well behind their traditional public school counterparts.
And when you stop to consider things like finances, accountability, self-governance, social justice and life-long learning, then public schools prove themselves to be a much better choice than any privatized system.
Clearly we’re speaking in generalities here. Every school – public or privatized – is different. But there is enough commonality to identify certain trends between each type of school to make general conclusions about each category. In short, despite any media or political propaganda to the contrary, public schools come out on top.
Here are the top 10 reasons public schools are the best choice for children, families and communities
1) Public Schools Attract the Best Teachers
When choosing a school for your children, you want them to have the best teachers possible. You want life-long, committed educators – people who entered the profession as a calling, who dedicate their lives to young people.
This is not the case at many charter or private schools. Their teachers often don’t have the same high level of education, experience, or commitment. In many states, they aren’t required to earn a four-year degree from an accredited college, they routinely have less experience and higher turnover.
Compare that with public schools. With rare exceptions, teachers must have at least one bachelors degree in a specialized education field, and many have masters degrees or more. In addition, teacher turnover is much lower. This is partly because public school teachers usually earn a higher salary than those at privatized schools. (It’s still not comparable with professionals in other fields with similar levels of education, but it’s better than they get at privatized schools.) In addition they have higher job satisfaction because of increased union membership, which enables greater stability and helps create a safer workplace for teachers and their students.
Think about it. If you were one of the best teachers in the country, wouldn’t you want to work where you get the highest salary and benefits? Of course!
2) Public Schools Have a Greater Sense of Community
Most public schools have been around for a long time. They are the heart of the communities they serve. They do so much more than just teach children. They host continuing education courses for adults, extracurricular activities, sporting events, academic clubs, public swimming pools, open libraries, and invite the community for local events, concerts, seminars, etc.
This is rarely the case at privatized schools. Charters and private institutions are often fledgling startups. They’re located in rented office spaces, renovated store fronts and other locations chosen more for their cost benefits to investors and not for their efficacy as places of education or community outreach.
Public schools have histories that go back generations. Everyone in the community knows the teachers who work there. Parents often send their kids to the same educators who taught them when they were young. Sometimes this goes back to grandparents and even great grandparents. Older brothers can advise younger sisters what it was like to have this teacher or that principal. The kinds of relationships you get at public school just aren’t there at institutions that model themselves on big box stores like WalMart and Target.
3) Public Schools Increase Educational Choice
Privatizers often talk about charters and voucher schools as if they are the only places that offer parents and students choice. It’s simply untrue. Many public school districts offer a tremendous amount of alternatives for students living in their neighborhoods. Larger urban districts often have magnet or theme schools. But even beyond that, most schools offer a wide variety of classes and curriculum. Students can take foreign languages, vo-tech, arts and humanities, independent studies, and advanced placement or college credit courses. Students can take advantage of a plethora of services designed to personalize their academic experience to meet their individual needs with special and gifted education, even choosing which teachers are the best fit for their learning styles.
Obviously, these options increase with the degree of wealth in a community, but they prove that increasing choice doesn’t have to mean privatization. It means equitable funding.
4) Public Schools Have Greater Diversity
Students learn a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic in school. They also learn how to deal with different kinds of people – they learn to share this world with other humans from various racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual backgrounds. The more diverse an environment they grow up in, the more well-adjusted they will be for the adult world, and the less racist, sexist and prejudiced they’ll probably become.
Public schools are often a sea of diversity. They are the best place to meet the entire spectrum of humanity. On the other hand, charter and voucher schools are routinely segregated and homogenous. Sometimes privatized schools make efforts to fight against this, but you can’t make much headway when your entire system is based on sorting out the underprivileged in favor of white, affluent children whose parents can afford tuition (private schools) or poor black but high achieving children (charter schools).
5) Public Schools Are More Fiscally Responsible
Public schools spend their money more wisely than privatized schools. They have to! Their records are an open book. All the spending decisions happen in public view. And the law requires that all expenses must relate to educating children.
Privatized schools rarely do this, and if they do, it’s by choice not necessity. They could close their books any day, make whatever decisions they like behind closed doors and layout bundles of cash for their CEOs or investors. Privatized schools are for-profit. Even when they aren’t explicitly labeled as such, they usually operate in the same way – cut student services to increase the bottom line. Their explicit goal is to make money off your child – not simply earn a middle class income like public schools. No, they want to get rich off of your dime.
Privatizers buy mansions and yachts with your money. Public school teachers pay off their mortgages. And in the rare instances where public school employees break the law and try to embezzle funds, they are much more likely to be caught because the books are right there for all to see.
6) Public Schools Are More Reliable
When you send your child to most privatized schools, you never really know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. Charter schools often close without a moments notice. Private schools declare bankruptcy.
If there’s one thing you can be reasonably sure of, it’s that your neighborhood public school will still be there. It’s been there for decades, sometimes hundreds of years. Charter and voucher schools are often fly-by-night affairs. Public schools are solid bedrock. If public schools close, it’s only after considerable public comment and a protracted political process. No one ever shows up to find the local public school chained shut. Not the same at charters or private schools.
7) Public Schools Have Greater Commitment to Students
Charter and vouchers schools don’t have to accept your child. Public schools do.
When you enroll in a privatized school, the choice is all up to administrators. Is your child a safe bet? Can they let your little one in without breaking the bank? Will he or she make the school look good with better test scores? Will he or she be easy to educate?
Public schools, on the other hand, have a commitment to educating every child who lives in the district. They even take homeless children. Only under the most extreme circumstances would they expel a young person. No matter who your offspring is, no matter how good or bad a student, public school operators have faith they can help the youngster succeed.
8) You Have Ownership of Public Schools
With privatized schools, you’re paying for a business to provide services. Public schools belong to you. In fact, you’re the boss.
Public schools are run by your friends, neighbors and co-workers. Privatized schools are most often run by appointed boards of directors who are not beholden to you but to the investors. As education blogger Peter Greene puts it, “The charter is a business, run by people who don’t ever have to let you into their board room.”
In addition, many public schools go beyond even this level of parental involvement. They more often have PTAs or PTOs. They have advisory councils where elected parents, teachers and community members can work together to advise the school board on important maters like hiring superintendents. If parents and the community want a voice, the public school system is overflowing with options. Ironically, the community rarely has any say over privatized schools and parents can only vote with their feet.
9) Public Schools Provide More Amenities
Public schools routinely offer so much more than privatized schools. At many charter and voucher schools, parents are required to buy supplies for the whole institution. Public schools accept donations and sometimes teachers ask for help, but if parents can’t (or won’t) send in pencils or tissues, the school provides it gratis. And even when the district is cheap in this regard, teachers often make up the difference from their own pockets. It’s not right that they have to do so, but they constantly step up for your children.
Moreover, public schools offer a much expanded range of services for your children than privatized schools. Special education and gifted programs are first rate at public schools while often intermittent or nonexistent at privatized schools. And the requirements put on parents at public schools are much lower – less restrictive dress codes, fewer demands on parents’ time and they take a greater responsibility for your children.
Heck, private schools rarely even pay for transportation. Public schools offer a free ride via the school bus from home and back again.
10) Public Schools Match or Outperform Privatized Schools
When it comes to academic performance, comparisons all come down to what data you think is indicative of student learning and which factors you exclude. You can find plenty of studies funded by privatizers that unsurprisingly conclude their backers business model is the best. However, when you look at peer reviewed and nonpartisan studies, the story changes.
The Lubienskis, in particular, paint an extremely compelling picture of public school superiority based on numerous complex statistical models including hierarchical linear modeling and multivariate regression. In short, the authors conclude that after accounting for the demographic differences among various school sector populations, traditional public school students outperform those at private schools over time. Students typically enter public schools with much greater degrees of poverty than those entering private schools. As such, public school students start with greater academic deficiencies. Even so, public schools are able to make up for these deficiencies over time more easily than privatized schools. And by fourth grade, public school students actually have greater academic success than their demographically similar peers at private or charter schools. The Lubienskis call it “The Public School Effect.”
With all these benefits, you’d think we’d be cheering on our public school system, not denigrating it. However, the failing schools narrative sells a lot of people on privatized alternatives. But it’s not fact. It’s marketing.
It’s time someone explicitly outlined the benefits of our public schools. We could be doing a lot more to help make them even better. But the first step is recognizing what an asset these schools already are.
Public schools, they’re what happens when we value children over profit.
This article was originally published on Gadfly on the Wall.