Acton Commentary

Private Schools Work: Less Can Mean More


Public school administrators across America are finding themselves in a difficult, and unaccustomed position of having to explain to concerned parents why their school is listed as failing, according to the new federal standards implemented in the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001”. This Act attempts to implement some flexibility in state standards in order make them less rigid in their requirements, so that failing schools are able to creatively arrive at solutions unhindered by unnecessary regulation. In some state courts, however, there are moves to block a key aspect of the Act—the portion that requires failed schools to provide tuition monies for students who wish to attend a better school. At this juncture in the implementation of the Act, there is a general sense that the Education Department is not given enough policy guidance in the enforcement of the Act’s requirements. Across the board there seems to be a move to shift the blame for failure, rather than addressing the general breakdown of the public schools the act was designed to address.

Meanwhile, private and parochial schools continue to do what they have always done: teach students successfully. Studies show that parochial schools spend less than half of what the public schools spend on educating students, and yet, despite the NEA’s claims, the schools actually do more with less. According to a study conducted in three New York boroughs by Paul Peterson and Herbert Walberg, per pupil costs in public schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn are an average of $5,124. The parochial schools in those same boroughs spend approximately 53.2% less, $2,399 on average per student. And yet, this same study found that, on average, private school students scored 7.3% better on standardized reading tests than did their public school counterparts.

Furthermore, a study conducted by the Rand Corporation of public, private, and parochial high schools in New York City found that the parochial high schools graduated 95% of their students, while the public schools graduated only about 50%. Parochial school students scored a combined average score of 803 on the SAT; public school students scored a combined average of 642. Finally, 60% of the African American students in parochial schools scored above the national average for African American students on the SAT. Seventy percent of the African American students in public schools scored below that average. The evidence clearly suggests that there must be more to academic success than money.

What makes private and parochial schools outperform public schools if more money isn’t the answer? There are a few constant factors that contribute to the success of private schools. One aspect is that private and parochial schools are, generally speaking, safer than public schools. Private and parochial schools are predominantly schools founded on a faith tradition. One important aspect of faith traditions is that they promote respect—respect for teachers, students, the learning environment, and more broadly, respect for legitimate authority. The presence of a clear set of expectations for behavior cannot be discounted as a reason contributing to academic success.

The management of private schools is directly accountable to parents in a way that public schools are not. Private school teachers often know and form relationships with parents of the students they instruct. Parents can often be found in the classroom volunteering to read stories to preschoolers or on field trips as chaperones or drivers. They can be found judging the local Halloween costume contest and helping clean the classrooms prior to the beginning of the school year. As a result, there is a great sense of shared mission on the part of teachers and parents in the private school environment.

Private school administrators understand the power of parents. They know that the continued existence of their school depends, in part, on keeping the parents satisfied. This could lead to principals and teachers merely telling parents what they want to hear, but more often than not, it leads to the demand for excellence. Parents who willingly pay out tuitions of $1000 or $2000 for their children to attend a particular school expect to get their money’s worth and that means they expect their children to learn. School administrators know this and know that dissatisfied parents imperil the school’s existence.

Given the more responsive nature of private schools teachers and students have a clear educational mandate. Academic success is expected of all students. Teachers are expected to provide the tools students need to succeed: a well-taught academic curriculum, homework and assignments that will be graded each day, respect for the learning process, for the teacher, for fellow students, and for the student himself. Teachers in private and parochial schools take this mandate very seriously because their livelihood depends on it. Often they find themselves tutoring particular students or spending their own money to purchase supplementary materials and they do this while earning substantially less than their public school counterparts. They often accept this willingly because they believe in the mission of the school and the dignity of the student.

Parents have long known that private schools offer a different approach to education. Competition, accountability, mission, and the overwhelming presence of religion in these schools help to demonstrate that schools can indeed succeed while spending substantially less than public schools. Unfortunately, for many students in failed schools the only answers the public school lobby offers for their failure are blame and a demand for increased funding as a panacea for all problems. For children trapped in failed schools it is tragic that more actually means less.