I’m not actually going to take issue with the basic premise of If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person. Allison Benedikt argues persuasively that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. And Benedikt is not looking to outlaw private schools. She’s just trying to guilt parents into quitting them.
Benedikt wants every school full of parents with the time and energy needed to improve it. But that’s a pipe dream. What isn’t is a public education system open enough to accountability and change that even working parents can get a good education for their kids from their local public school.
With few exceptions, public schools are better in the wealthier suburbs and rural areas. There, parents with the will and means to get a good education for their kids live close together and by turns force and help local schools to do their jobs. Rich, educated parents get much better results from public schools because doing so requires a ton of work. Bake sales and PTA meetings don’t run themselves. And school boards and administrators don’t do a good job of keeping themselves accountable.
In less wealthy inner cities and rural areas, schools operate poorly, with little assistance or oversight from parents who are struggling just to get by.
Much as we might want to think of them as exceptions, public schools are service providers, and parents are customers. Demanding customers get better service.
But part of the reason being a demanding customer is so demanding itself is that public education is so mired in bureaucracy, opacity and other impediments to competition and reform. It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. There is absolutely no way to know how public schools spend their budgets. Public education is one of the most top-heavy institutions in the United States.
Innovation in any industry, including education, requires two things. First, there must be flexibility to innovate. Things don’t improve which can’t change. Second, there must be impetus to innovate. Doing things differently is risky. No one will take risks if they don’t fear losing what they’ve gained to competitors who will. What excludes public education from this fact of life?
And how are schools supposed to innovate when states and unions set standards for school days, school years, curricula, teacher pay and more?
What we’ve seen over decades of skyrocketing spending on public education and flatlined educational outcomes is that no amount of money can replace a concerned, active, informed parent. Where parents are involved, schools produce a great education. Where they aren’t, schools fail. This is independent of spending. That’s why Benedikt understandably wants kids who do not have involved parents to benefit alongside the kids who do. It’s a laudable goal and a beautiful vision.
But any solution that requires people to deny their kids the best education possible out of guilt over the kids for whom that’s out of reach is doomed to fail. What could work are a few simple reforms to make getting schools to do their jobs require less time, money and energy in the first place.
Moves like ending teacher tenure, shining light on school budgets, allowing schools to innovate and legalizing charter schools and vouchers to open up competition will give concerned parents a clearer and easier path to improving their schools. They will make it easier for parents to demand, and get, better customer service.