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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Problem of Private Schools

It’s a well-known fact that private schools perpetuate inequality. But is abolishing them the answer?

Our mystery begins with my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, which has some of the best public schools in the country. This isn’t just hometown pride speaking: They really are top-notch public schools. And why shouldn’t they be great? Santa Barbara is an extremely wealthy area. Residents include Oprah, Rob Lowe, Ellen Degeneres, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Costner. The median home price hit a million dollars way back in 2004. It dipped during the recession (all the way down to $845,000) but has since recovered and is now over $1.2 million. Santa Barbara’s well-funded public schools tend to place in the top quartile of schools in California, and doubtless outperform many private schools in other towns. No one would call the schools in Santa Barbara “bad.” They are manifestly good.

What a blessing, you might think. Sure, it costs a fortune to live there, but good public schools! Free, high-quality public education is a huge asset—it’s a major determiner of property values in the first place. Oh—you might think—how wonderful to be free from the private/charter/magnet/public battles, free from planning kindergarten applications at birth to set up your kid for the application for elementary school in order to put them in the best position to get into the right middle school, which is so important for getting them into a good high school, which of course is essential for admission to the right college, which will be basically required for their law school application. No need for any of that in Santa Barbara. You can just go sign ‘em up.

But here’s the mystery: Santa Barbara also has a thriving industry of private schools. Parents pay nearly $32,000 a year for their kids to go to high school at Laguna Blanca. They pay $27,000 to send their kids to tiny Anacapa, a school with an enrollment of only 36 students (grades 7-12). Or they pay $65,500 to send their kids to the Cate School (though for this price you also get to board them at school, a blessing of its own).

The question is why? Why would parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schooling for their kids when they could have perfectly adequate—even exceptional—public school for free? Is this just rich people’s foolishness? Are they getting their money’s worth? And if they are getting their money’s worth, what does that mean for everyone else?

Art by Dugong John aka John Biggs.


Here’s a statement I think everyone would agree with: No child deserves a lower-quality education just because their parents have less money. Okay, maybe not everyone would agree. There are probably some people who think children’s deservingness is an extension of their parents’ deservingness, in some sort of debased karmic retribution or the curse of a prosperity-minded God. And surely someone out there has the right combination of naive credulity and moral confusion to have the opinion that rich kids are more likely to be “intelligent” and therefore deserve more resources. 

But I have to hope these views are rare, or at least so obviously based on the just-world fallacy as to be easily refuted. When it comes to adults, it’s easy (but still wrong) to cast judgment based on life choices and say things like “if you wanted adequate housing you should have found a way to make more money.” But this argument doesn’t really hold up for kids. Rich kids have generally done nothing different in life than poor kids, other than being born wealthy. There is no credible, non-eugenics-based argument that one group is more deserving than the other. So it’s reasonable to think that poor kids deserve just as good an education as rich kids.

But of course, deserving or not, poor kids don’t get an education equal to rich kids. They really don’t get one. Within the public school system there’s no clear agreement on how to measure “quality” of education, but everyone acknowledges that rich areas tend to have very good public schools and poor areas tend to have very bad ones. (Compound this inequality if you’re talking about rich white areas and poor Black areas, or poor Latinx areas, or poor Native areas.)

To this mix, let’s add private schools. Private schools, as a concept, put some of our core democratic and ethical principles in tension with each other. People worry, often very thoughtfully, about whether they are perpetuating inequality if they choose to send their kids to “good” private schools instead of the local “bad” public schools. And some people reasonably think that private schools are standing in the way of public schools getting better, especially in big cities. But there’s an open debate over whether parents are to blame as individuals for making the “best” choices for their children, or whether the social pressure to send children to public school really exists at all. As an opinion writer recently put it in the Wall Street Journal, “when parents move their child to a private school, no one accuses them of sabotaging public schools.” 

Except that when parents move their child to a private school, they are sabotaging public schools. They are doing so by draining the public school of resources: their own time and participation, as well as money. In the 15 (and growing) states that offer school vouchers, every student who leaves public school takes public money with them. On top of that, every child who leaves public school for private school chips away at public education’s legitimacy as an important and necessary institution, and gives conservative lawmakers more ammunition to take money out of the public school system. But private schools are sabotaging public schools in a deeper way, too. The problem lies in the very existence of private schools. If parents are willing to pay for their kids to go to private school, this must mean they perceive some greater value in private school than in public school. And this, in turn, means one of two things: either the parents are wrong and they’re getting ripped off (i.e., this is indeed rich people’s foolishness), or they’re right and we have an educational system that cannot be morally justified. Both of these are bad outcomes. 

There are some possible counterarguments here, but most of them are wrong. First, you might say that there’s a difference between the quality of education and the quality of the other things people get at private schools. Maybe private schools are like social club substitutes for parents, who just want to have their kids in the same small environment together. And if, let’s say, the public school down the street doesn’t have lower test scores than the private school, then what’s unequal about this? Quite a bit, as it happens. The networks that kids form in school—the people that they’re surrounded with, whether peers or adults—and the relative affluence or poverty around them largely determine life outcomes. (The schools themselves love to tout this!) There can be no “separate but equal” along class lines any more than there can be along racial lines. The rich kids will inevitably get more value out of their private school education, if not in terms of test scores then in terms of connections, aspirations, ambitions, and self-worth. 

The same goes for amenities. For example, you might say that so long as test scores are equal between private and public schools, it isn’t any kind of moral problem if rich parents want to pay to send their kids to schools with five-star meals and a rock climbing wall. But the idea that the quality of food and recreational activities aren’t important parts of education is far off the mark. Every aspect of kids’ environments at school and at home shape their ability to learn and grow. And, as above, having a rock wall and excellent meals at one school and not another says something to the kids of those respective schools about their relative worth, something that they may internalize forever.

A somewhat better counterargument is that equality is impossible to achieve. Even if every kid in the country were to attend perfectly equal public schools, rich parents would always be able to do more outside of school. Rich kids would still eat better at home and bring better food for lunch. They would be able to pay for violin lessons and rock walls and anything else that the school didn’t provide. If parents were really committed, maybe they’d pull their kids out of school altogether and hire top scholars to tutor their kids individually, like young aristocrats. So long as we have differences in wealth we will inevitably have differences in education, and therefore—the argument goes—we shouldn’t waste time thinking about the particular unfairness of public versus private education at all.

This might be true, but it’s rather nihilistic, and not very useful. If we’re going to presuppose that the world will always be unequal, or that we should do nothing about unjust systems until the revolution comes and society magically equalizes itself, then we might as well not do anything at all.

Some might also worry about the availability of religious education. Around 56 percent of private school students in the U.S. right now attend schools with a religious affiliation. Moving to an all-public system would take away parents’ abilities to make sure their children are educated consistently with their religious beliefs. This is not trivial, and the solutions are neither easy nor obvious. One solution would be to allow religious institutions to conduct religious education outside the public school system, so long as all children still attend public school and the religious program is free and open to all. Another solution is to open a door in the mostly imaginary wall between church and state and allow a designation of public schools that are religiously-affiliated. Putting aside whether this is constitutional (since, under current case law, the entire idea of abolishing private school is unconstitutional), there may not be anything wrong in principle about a religious education option which is treated like a public school. The most difficult aspect would likely be dealing with claims that the various forms of religious instruction compel things like conversion therapy for gay students or racial segregation. These are challenging policy questions, but I don’t think they’re necessarily insurmountable.

Finland? Pinochet?

So what is to be done? One answer: abolish private schools. Finland already did it in the 1970s. Everyone in Finland attends public school, all the way up from kindergarten through college and graduate school, if they choose to pursue higher education. And educational outcomes in Finland are spectacular, consistently ranking near the top of international assessments and far outperforming U.S. students. Cuba has a similar system with similar results: consistent outperformance of its peer countries that have not abolished private school. Both countries present a ready contrast to a heavily privatized nation like Chile. Thanks to education privatization efforts undertaken by the murderous dictator Pinochet, around 50 percent of students in Chile attend private schools. (In the United States, around 10 percent of students attend private schools.) Chile also lags far behind its peers, particularly Cuba, in both student performance and class integration within schools.

The idea of doing away with private schools comes up from time to time in U.S. educational discourse. In 1922, Oregon passed a law requiring all children to attend public schools. However, in a strong showing for corporate rights, the Supreme Court sided in 1925 with private schools who sued to block the law. The Court held, rather incredibly and without much in the way of precedent, that while the state can compel kids to go to school, compelling them to go to public school is an unreasonable interference with their parents’ liberty.

Nonetheless, the idea continues to bubble up. Last March, the Atlantic ran a long story by Julie Halpert which conducted dueling thought experiments: What if the United States banned private school? What if it banned public school? But, as with most of the private versus public discourse, much of the discussion was spent in the weeds of differences between how private and public schools work now. That is, Halpert notes that private schools have more resources, smaller classes, and more teachers. She also notes that public schools have more transparency, more accountability, and more rights (especially for disabled students). Private schools can be more flexible in their assessments of students, but can also discriminate. Public schools can be forced to integrate, but are beholden to standardized tests.

But very little about the nature of public schools and private schools demands these divergences. There’s no reason that public schools couldn’t have a very low student-to-teacher ratio, or lots of resources, or smaller classes. There’s nothing inherent about public schools that requires us to govern every aspect of childrens’ lives according to data-driven metrics. We aren’t required to have a Race to the Top

We don’t even need standardized tests. As Pasi Sahlberg, a former Finnish education official, has explained in his book and to multiple media outlets, Finland has no standardized tests at all except for an optional one at the end of high school. There are no national curriculum standards. Every teacher creates tests and manages grades according to their own discretion. The teaching profession is well-paid and very selective. There are specialty schools for children with different needs, all of which are public. In many ways, Finnish public schools resemble American private schools. And it’s working very well for them.

Now it’s time for the standard conservative objection to any adoption of Nordic-style policies: This would never work in America because we are too racially and economically diverse for our [public schools] to function as well as [Finland’s]. It’s an absurd argument, of course. Forcing schools to integrate reduces racism and improves performance. Who’s to say Finnish schools wouldn’t be even better if it were a more racially diverse country? Also, Finland is demographically similar to Norway, which has private schools and significantly underperforms Finland.

Another objection: Private schools are too entrenched in the American system to be rid of them. It would be too big a change. But Finland hasn’t always had public-only education. As I mentioned earlier, the Finnish system was implemented in the 1970s, and in fact it was done with the explicit goal of achieving educational equity. Finland didn’t abolish private school solely to improve educational outcomes; it was to make manifest the principle that all children are equally deserving of the best possible education. Finland abolished private schools to make things more equal, and in doing so they also improved the quality of their education considerably.

What About the Anarchists?

There’s another and much more compelling objection to the abolition of private schools, however. In an all-public system, there is very little escape. If you are, say, an anarchist, you might not like the idea that education is solely controlled by the state. In fact there’s a solid line of anarchist educational thought, beginning with William Godwin and running through contemporary writers like Jonathan Kozol, that public education will always serve the powers that be. In 1793, Godwin wrote that “government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of the individual mind,” and that if education is left up to the government, then that government “will not fail to employ [education] to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions.” This sentiment is echoed by all your anarchist favorites: Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin all insisted on the separation of child and state.

Francisco Ferrer, a major figure in child-centric education, puts a fine point on it: “Rulers have always taken care to control the education of the people. They know better than anyone else that their power is based almost entirely on the school, and they therefore insist on retaining their monopoly on it.” Ferrer, a major international figure in the beginning of the 20th century, founded the Modern Schools in Spain, a series of educational institutions which were run on anarchist principles. These Modern Schools were co-ed, nonreligious, and experience-based. They didn’t teach reading until children were around 10 years old, and instead focused on experiences and exploration. They also partnered with local universities to offer enrichment for parents and others in the community, and often served as publishing houses for activists and scholars. 

The Modern Schools were necessarily private. Something like a public school existed at the time, but it was gender-segregated, run by the church, and represented everything that Ferrer’s educational philosophy had reacted against. Modern Schools were funded by tuition, which was charged on a sliding scale according to parents’ income. Ferrer himself was famously murdered by firing squad in 1909 for challenging the Spanish government’s (and church’s) monopoly on the educational system: i.e., for challenging public school with a private alternative. 

After his death, Ferrer’s followers around the world opened up their own Modern Schools, but over time the movement fizzled. The two notable Modern Schools in the United States (located in New York City and Stelton, New Jersey) both struggled financially. The facilities were lacking—Margaret Sanger’s daughter caught pneumonia in the freezing dormitory at the Stelton school—and both closed permanently in 1953.

But the concerns over the role of government in education—and the desire for anarchist alternatives—has not disappeared. Jonathan Kozol’s book The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home is a searing indictment of the way the U.S. public education system instills fear, impotence, and complacency into children. In Kozol’s view, the primary purpose of the public education system is to teach children that they have no power to be moral actors in their own lives, let alone to alter the power structures around them. This extends not just to political helplessness, but to active engagement in atrocities. Of the My Lai massacre, Kozol writes: “It is not the U.S. Army that permits a man to murder first the sense of ethics, human recognitions, in his own soul: then to be free to turn the power of his devastation outward to the eyes and forehead of another human being. Basic training does not begin in boot camp. It begins in kindergarten.” Rather than learning how to effectively leverage their power as citizens, students are taught an anodyne version of American history. They’re encouraged to engage in politics by doing things like writing hopeless and useless letters to their legislators, and patting themselves on the back for their efforts. When they graduate, they are both numbed and comforted by their own powerlessness—a powerlessness that itself is an illusion. Kozol uses the example of the rich white students who care passionately about racism and poverty, and could instantly shift the policy landscape by putting their own privileged bodies on the line, for example through a hunger strike or refusal to seek medical care. But these things never occur to them, and this is by design. Kozol systematically examines every aspect of public schooling in America, from curriculum to culture to discipline, and arrives at what he believes is the purpose of our government-sponsored educational system: What we learn in public school is to ask permission for the revolution. Or, as Noam Chomsky describes public education: “You’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to obey, and just proceed through the material in whatever way they require.”

The anarchists, as usual, have a point. Public school, particularly in the United States, has largely been a site of indoctrination. There is some geographical variance in terms of how extreme (and racist) this indoctrination is, but I doubt there’s any public school in the country where you will learn as much about Eugene Debs as Henry Ford, or as much about John Brown as John Wilkes Booth. The curriculum can be improved, the day restructured, the demands for docility and complacency tamped down. But even when we feel the state is doing well by our children, it will still have its own interests. And, particularly in the United States, governmental policies are fickle and subject to change. We will continue to have elections, and it may be impossible to truly insulate the educational system and process from the whims and prejudices of the public.

And, though I was initially somewhat dismissive of Julie Halpert’s point about the flexibility of private schools, she may be onto something. Like Finnish schools, we can create a public schooling system that will de-emphasize or do away with standardized tests. But can a publicly accountable system be flexible enough to try out new pedagogical methods and theories? The various progressive education movements in the United States—Montessori, Waldorf, etc.—have been accomplished as private schools. Ferrer’s own Modern Schools, and their successors in the United States, were private institutions that charged tuition on a sliding scale according to families’ means. Our most effective educational reformers have felt it necessary to go outside of the government’s system. Can we trust the state, which has a monopoly on violence and coercion, to teach our children to challenge authority?

Maybe, maybe not. I’m not willing to concede just yet that it’s impossible to design some kind of system that will be state-supported but still free and flexible enough to offer a wide range of different educational experiences, all fostering independence of mind. Building an ideal system is a somewhat utopian question anyway. Right now, as American schools resegregate, as majority Black and brown schools turn into miniature prisons, as children lose recess and music and art classes to spend more time with Scantrons, as performance falls and misery rises, as generations of children fare worse than their parents, as the wealthy get wealthier and find ever new ways to separate themselves from the people on whose backs their wealth is built, Finland might not be utopia, but it looks like a pretty damn good start.

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