As I mentioned in a recent post offering some tongue-in-cheek remarks on the educational system, my wife and I have enrolled our son in a private Christian school, where she also works as a part-time music teacher. I believe that this decision is compatible with a general attitude of support for the public schools, and while I obviously affirm the right of parents to choose private or home schooling for their children if desired, I do not affirm vouchers or other means of siphoning funds away from the public school system. Indeed, as one of my Presbyterian “heroes” J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937; the dude on the far right of the banner at the top of the page) opined, the presence of competition from quality private schools can serve as a deterrent to apathy and inefficiency in the public school system.
While I agree generally with Machen’s assessment, the idea of having public schools mimic the models of successful private schools has been applied in an unhappy way in recent years, particularly by conservative lawmakers championing “fiscal responsibility.” Before I proceed further, and lest my conservative credentials be questioned, I am in favor of limited government, balanced budgets, and state and local control of the public schools. This last item, once a major conservative talking point, seems to have gotten short shrift in recent years as lawmakers in several states have slashed state education spending while simultaneously cutting income taxes and offering tax incentives to large private employers. It seems to me that the more responsible route would be to shore up state budgets so that dependency upon federal funds (and their accompanying regulatory apparatus) could be lessened or eliminated. But, I digress.
There is much talk in conservative circles about how private schools “deliver a better product at a lower cost per student” than their public counterparts. On a surface level, this is true. One reason for this is the relative freedom from government regulation and testing regimes that private schools enjoy. Regulation costs money, as entire offices of administrators must be hired to monitor and enforce regulatory compliance and submit accompanying paperwork to the appropriate government authorities. Standardized tests are likewise hugely expensive, in addition to siphoning valuable time from actual teaching and learning. Some lawmakers have responded to this by authorizing voucher programs or charter schools which are freed from these burdens to a greater or lesser extent. What they never seem to ask is that if these regulations and tests are so onerous, why not simply remove them from the schools we have in order to save money and give greater freedom—and responsibility—to teachers and students? All of the public school teachers I know would rejoice at the thought!
Another reason for private schools’ lower per-student costs is not as easy for public schools to match: parental involvement. While some families have to sacrifice a great deal to pay private school tuition, other private school families are quite well-situated, often with one parent staying home and the other having an enviable degree of freedom of scheduling during the day. This allows moms in particular to log hundreds of volunteer hours per year to keep things moving at schools, while dads are also able to help in various capacities, serve on school boards, etc. In such families one or both parents can almost always be at home with the children during the evenings, making them available to help with homework, provide transportation to various enrichment activities, and generally run their families in a way that minimizes many of the social pathologies faced by public schools, particularly in poorer districts. Indeed, more affluent public schools often enjoy similar advantages in this way to their private counterparts.
Is that to say that less affluent parents care any less for their children? Not necessarily. Of course, one could credibly argue that problems such as absentee parents, drug abuse, poor nutrition, unstable family situations, and the like are more prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Still, even the best parents of lesser means doing shift work, working multiple jobs, or otherwise without free hours during the typical school day will be unable to put in volunteer hours, spend as much time working with their own children on homework, etc. Whether because of dysfunctional home environments, inability to contribute after hours to educational endeavors, or some combination of these and other factors, public schools—especially less affluent ones—cannot count on students’ families to offer the kind of support that private school students enjoy. Instead, the school is expected to take up the slack, and that costs money. Money for tutoring, for after-school programs, for free or reduced-cost meals, for medical and counseling services, and the list goes on. Private schools don’t have these things, because the families involved do not need them—the families provide for them themselves.
In a perfect world, all children would have supportive parents with the time and inclination to help them to succeed educationally, both on an individual level and as part of a school community. That this is not always the case is not the fault of the public schools, nor is it within their capability to solve the root problems at hand; problems of which I have but scratched the surface this evening and that in only an anecdotal manner. And yet, public schools are still charged with doing their best to educate children in the best and most cost-effective manner possible. Would lessening the regulatory burden save money? Almost certainly. Can public schools otherwise operate as cheaply as private schools? As long as there are students who are not receiving the needed support at home, almost certainly not. Our society is broken, and empty exhortations to “do more with less” ring hollow when faced with children who desperately want someone to teach them…and sometimes to love them. Can public schools solve these problems? No, but for now they are charged with standing in the gap.
So what is the solution to our society’s problems if not better schools? There’s a Book about it…but you can’t talk about it at school.