The Truth About Private Schools
Vox is currently running a series called “Hindsight 2070,” where prominent scholars have been asked to look back at today from 50 years in the future and identify what we do now that will be unthinkable then. Some things on the list, like eating meat and youth tackle football, are predictable, but others like “bosses” and ending the draft were surprising and thought-provoking reads.
One of those pieces is dedicated to K-12 education. The headline reads “Abandoning public education will be considered unthinkable 50 years from now” and it is written by sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield.
Dr. Wingfield argues, “Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, most U.S. students attended local public schools. Of course, these were also strictly racially segregated. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court struck down legal segregation that a demand for private (and eventually charter and religious parochial) schools really began to grow, frequently as a backlash to integrated public institutions.”
This is false. In fact, the opposite is true. Private schooling reached its zenith in America at the time of Brown v. Board and has been on the decline ever since. As Richard Murnane, Sean Reardon, Preeya Mbekeani, and Anne Lamb write in Education Next, “The share of U.S. school-age children attending private elementary schools peaked during the postwar boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, reaching 15 percent in 1958. By the mid-1970s, it had fallen to 10 percent and remained quite steady for the rest of the 20th century. During the subsequent 15 years, it drifted downward slowly and was slightly less than 9 percent in 2015.” (Neal McCluskey dug into these data as well and came to a similar conclusion.)
Private schooling has declined, not increased, post-Brown.
This is predominately because of the outsized role that parochial schools played. Parochial schools are the sector of schools that Dr. Wingfield maintains “eventually” became part of the demand for private schools in the post-Brown era even though they preceded Brown by more than 100 years. Catholic parochial schools have a proud tradition of working to help low-income children receive a better education. As Diane Ravitch summed it up in 2012, “Catholic schools have a proven record. They are safe, well-disciplined, and get consistently good results.” Unfortunately, the economic model of Catholic parochial schools, which relied upon priests and religious to teach children, became untenable as fewer people chose those vocations. Losing these choices has been bad for inequality and economic mobility, not good.
But even within the traditional public schooling system, rather than seeing a proliferation of small, cloistered school districts post-Brown, we saw a dramatic decrease in their total number. According to NCES, there were 71,094 school districts across America in 1951-52. That number shrunk to 13,588 by 2010-11. But that argument is for another day.
She begins her next paragraph by describing our “current educational system of unfettered school choice.” Unfettered? That would be news to the thousands of families who are stuck on charter school waiting lists across the country or those who are marching on state capitols for school vouchers or education savings accounts.
It seems to me that when she writes that school choice is “unfettered” she means that that school choice is widely available for middle- and upper-income people. And on that score, we agree. The problem is that it isn’t clear what her solution is. She accuses America of “sacrificing the public sector on the altar of ‘school choice’ and individualism,” to imply that we need to go back to some time (that in fact never actually existed) where we all send our kids to the same public schools. But wouldn’t sending their children to a more socio-economically or racially integrated school be a choice as well? What about the magnet schools, schools of choice mind you, that are specifically designed to try and promote integration? What about “purposely diverse” charter schools? Are those bad?
School choice reflects fundamental truths about educating children. There is no one best way to educate kids. There are lots of different school models that have met with success and students will be a better fit at some and not at others. It is next to impossible to centrally plan or apportion children to the schools that will fit them best, so giving them and their parents the ability to find the school that best meets their needs is the fairest way to organize the system.
What we need to do is help level the playing field and give more support and more opportunities to those who do not already have them.
Giving poor people more opportunities is not going to damage our democracy. In fact, I believe it is going to strengthen it. We live in a diverse and pluralistic nation, and our institutions should reflect that. We don’t all have to worship at the same church or support the same politicians or even cheer for the same sports teams. We allow for freedom of choice across a wide range of human decisions and education should be one as well.
I hope when our children and grandchildren look back on today from 2070, they can be proud that we stood up for the fundamental principles of pluralism in a time of great political upheaval. Sacrificing those will not make for a brighter future.