Thursday, July 9, 2009

Private Schools, Public Education

I'm reading James Tooley's The Beautiful Tree, an account of how low-cost private schools are flourishing in the developing world, outpacing public schools in enrollment and student learning. Parents in Ghana, India, China, and Kenya have chosen to pay to send their kids to school rather than send them to free public schools, because they expect that their kids will learn better and more, and in settings that they favor. Their desires are being met by entrepreneurs, who establish the schools both to make money and to serve these families.

Tooley's book is a reminder that private schools can play an important public role. The reminder is important because in the US private K-12 schools have a reputation of serving private ends. The reputation is due to three things: first, most people think of expensive schools for rich kids when they think of private schools. Second, during the civil rights movement private schools popped up throughout the US as mostly white parents withdrew their kids from rapidly integrating public schools. Many private schools still have this tinge to them. Meanwhile, private schools that do serve the poor and minorities, such as many parochial schools, struggle to keep their doors open. Third, advocates for private schools often frame their arguments in terms of choice, regularly seeking tax vouchers to pay private school tuition.

But if we look further back in American history, private (mostly religous) schools met important public purposes--providing education for religious and ethnic minorities as well as innovating in education. The result was an improvement in American civic life and American education.

Today both private and public schools tend to focus on private ends--job training, personal or family satisfaction, etc. But that doesn't mean it has to be that way. The Beautiful Tree then may have some lessons for school reformers in the US. It suggests that it is possible to create successful private schools that regular people can afford. And it reminds readers that the ownership of the school is less important than its purposes. People concerned about the civic role of schools, the improvement of communities, and equity in education and society ought to remember that.

So, a question at the close--how inexpensive could a private school be, while providing quality education and a living wage for its teachers? Are these inexpensive schools already in existence? And could higher education follow the examples of the school builders in Tooley's book?

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