Slate, the online public affairs magazine, recently published a blog by one of their managing editors, Allison Benedikt, entitled, "If You Send Your Child to a Private School, You’re a Bad Person." The blog has drawn over 7,000 comments, received 61,000 "likes" (that's scary) and has been given air time on MSNBC.
For those who haven't read it, Bendikt does not mean private school parents are "murderer bad" (how generous). She means "ruining-one-of-our-nation's-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what's-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad."
Benedikt's argument is that parents should be "all in" for public schools. The fundamental right to choose a child's school should not be exercised. This a frightening argument in itself. But a specious one as well. The argument that our public schools would be best served by preventing parents from choosing alternatives has no empirical support. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that having diverse schooling options -- including independent schools -– benefits children and the American education system.
In the nineteenth century, Catholic immigrants began their own system of schools to provide a moral and spiritual education for their children and to escape Protestant proselytizing in the public schools of the time. In the early twentieth century, however, fear that every immigrant was a potential anarchist or communist led some states to ban private schools. Public schools could mold the children of the great unwashed into good citizens, ridding them of any crazy thinking from abroad.
But then the US Supreme Court put an end to such notions. The Constitution, the court decided, provides liberties that the states cannot take away—the point of the 14th Amendment—and one of those is the freedom of parents to choose the education of their children. As the court famously declared in Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925, "the child is not the mere creature of the State."
Rights are only meaningful if they're exercised. In America, we exercise our freedom of speech by sharing different opinions publicly. Indeed, we see that exercising that right, and learning the perspectives of others, makes us all stronger. Diverse schooling options make us stronger too.
Research shows that public schools are strongest where different types of schools work side by side, offering their communities different options for students with different needs. For example, research has found that public schools working in communities with large numbers of Catholic schools outperform public schools without parochial alternatives. Public schools in communities with lots of public charter schools (another form of choice) do better than public schools without those choices nearby. Public schools benefit from traditional public school competition as well. States with lots of independent school districts, offering easy residential choice, do better for students than states with large county-wide school systems providing little residential choice.
States with large numbers of independent private schools, the schools that NAIS represents, tend to have the highest performing public schools in the nation. Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey, for example, have some of the highest achieving public schools, as measured by the federal National Assessment of Education Progress, and they have some of the highest percentages of students enrolled in independent schools in the country. What is more, over the last decade, the public schools in these three states have also posted the highest gains for economically disadvantaged students —after controlling for the financial resources of the schools. Public schools are improving most where parents have numerous options, including independent schools.
Before I joined NAIS, only a few months back, I spent my career in education research and public school reform. In both capacities, I found myself regularly explaining how the exercise of choice was beneficial to all schools. People would often ask, "why don’t reformers just improve all of the traditional public schools, then no one would need to choose?" The answer is that reformers should do everything possible to improve every public school. But experience has shown that providing families with choices contributes to the improvement process. Different schools with different approaches to teaching and learning suit different kinds of learners. A range of school types is a good way to promote innovation. And, a little competition helps to keep all schools on their toes.
To be clear, choice doesn’t solve every problem. But eliminating choice -- or shaming parents who choose private schools into forsaking their choice (Benedikt's purpose) -- will only make the improvement of public schools harder. Schools get better when every parent can determine what their children need and what school will serve them best. The choice may be public, private, charter or even homeschool. There is great power for good in schools knowing that parents have choices too.
Parents who choose the schools that their children attend, public or private, are doing good—not bad—for America. They are bolstering a pluralistic system of schools, derived from a fundamental right to choose, but made strong by the willingness of generations of families to exercise that right thoughtfully.