The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Public Schools Deserve More Freedom" by The Detroit News,

Original Title:
What's So Great About Private School?
by Barry McGhan

Should we use public money to expand families' access to private schools? This question is at the heart of the voucher debate, and leads to many other questions. One of the most important--and least asked--is "What's so great about private school, anyway?"

Some people have tried to answer this question by looking at the facts. But they are scarce and debatable. Different researchers, looking at achievement in the Milwaukee and Cleveland voucher programs, have found different results--support for both sides of the voucher issue.

Long before voucher programs existed, researchers also studied and compared other private and public schools. These studies have been no less debatable. Some show that private school students' achievement is higher than public schools. Others show that when students of similar background are compared, no differences exist, or public school students do better.

The "facts" only seem useful to those who are willing to ignore some in favor of others. However, there may be a way to make sense of this private-school question without looking at such facts.

For the record, I am for public schools and against vouchers. I want public schools to be strong and effective organizations that meet the needs of the communities that support them. At the same time, I hope that private schools continue to provide the unique and valuable educational services they have always offered.

What gives life to the voucher movement is that some public schools are failing. If all public schools were producing successful students, the suggestion that we use public money to support private education would be laughable.

One of the most interesting things about private schools is the large number of people that admire them without knowing much about them. Polls regularly show 60 to 70 percent of parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford it. This approval rating comes from a population that has never sent more than about 12% of its kids to private school at any one time. Since no one can point to any unchallenged evidence that private schools are better, we should ask, "Why this faith in private schools?"

I think it comes primarily from peoples' belief that since these schools are private, they can offer an education that works. They are seen as free from the constraints that affect public schools' operations.

What are these freedoms? One of the most important is the freedom from accepting every student that shows up on the doorstep. Sure, this freedom could allow discrimination of various kinds--against special education students, for example. But, more important for many, it permits the exclusion of students who are not willing to cooperate with the goals of the school. As a recent Time magazine article said, "Catholic schools [as well, we suppose, as other private schools] are famous for imposing the kind of discipline that a lot of public-school teachers can only dream about."

Another private school freedom is the ability to require cooperation from parents. Parents who spend their own money for schooling have a natural interest in making the most of their investment. The private school can shape that interest to meet its needs by requiring certain activities from parents.

A third freedom is the ability to hire and fire personnel for cause--without regard for tenure laws or union contracts. A fourth is freedom from a public school bureaucracy that sometimes makes teaching akin to walking through a swamp in lead waders.

Is it wrong for parents to want these education freedoms? Why it would be? Is interest in them just a fad? You must be kidding.

Even so, we should not say "Yes" to public support of private schools. There is another way.

We can make public schools more like private schools by decentralizing and deregulating public education--without sacrificing equity and other legal protections. The beginnings of these kinds of changes are visible in the movement to create and sustain public magnet, alternative, and charter schools. We need to go farther, faster.

It will require a shift in the thinking of public educators. School boards need to develop a less paternalistic, more trusting view of teachers and principals. Teachers need to demand more control, and be willing to accept some of the risks and aggravations that go with increased responsibility. State officials need to simplify expectations for public schools and make them more like private schools.

Michigan charter school law makes these kinds of reforms credible for some public school boards and their employees right now. A little tweaking of this legislation would make such reform even more widely attractive.

What's so great about private schools? Their freedoms. I hate to see public schools on the run when deliverance is so close at hand.


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