Private or Public? The Debate Over Schools in America

Author Says Evidence Should Guide Policy

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The long-running debate over public vs. private schools, with the additional variants of charter schools and faith-based schools, is the topic of a recent book that took a detailed look at the outcomes from each type of school.

“School Choice: A Balanced Approach,” (Praeger) was written by William H. Jeynes, a professor of education at California State University and a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

He started by observing that arguments in favor of school choice often refer to the superior performance of private school students compared to their public school counterparts.

Currently in America, Jeynes noted, most parents send their children to a public school based on its proximity to their home.

While not denying the benefits of public schools Jeynes did refer to a number of factors, both historical and actual, that point to deficiencies. The family and community role in public education was very much reduced due to the influence of John Dewey and others who considered that teachers should direct children away from the values of their parents so that they could develop their own values.

Then, he referred to the contribution of education spending to the deficits of America’s states. Much of this spending he commented, is unnecessary. “Public schools overpay administrators, purchase high-tech equipment that is rarely used, and offer lavish perks to their employees.”

In fact, Christian schools operate at about 60% of the cost per pupil that public schools do. What this means, he said, is that the United States is spending almost twice as much on schooling as it should.

The government needs to pursue an education policy that is much more prudent and frugal instead of inaugurating policies that spend billions of dollars on unproven initiatives, Jeynes recommended.

He also cited data for the years between 1963 and 1980, which was when there was some of the greatest increase in government spending on elementary and secondary schools. Yet, during the same period, test results, SAT scores, declined substantially.

Private schools close

In recent years many faith-based private schools, mainly in inner city areas, have been forced to close. The result is that now around 90% of American students attend public schools, an all-time high.

This compares to 1874 when almost two-thirds of students attending high school went to privately run ones, nearly all of which were Christian schools.

Court decisions and tax policies have given public schools a considerable economic advantage. It is unfortunate, Jeynes added, that some of the first faith-based schools to close were in some of the poorest and most needy areas of the country.

Critics of private education, he admitted, are concerned that it favors the wealthy and the white population. Nevertheless, there is evidence from the voucher system in the city of Milwaukee and from Europe that the poor and minorities do benefit from having the choice between public and private education.

There is also evidence from the United States that Catholic schools raise the achievement of African Americans even more than they do whites. In general the achievement gap between students at faith-based schools is less than it is at public schools.

“If society at large viewed American education as a single entity designed to help children, it would support sending more children of color to private schools as a means of reducing the achievement gap,” Jeynes observed.

“Could it be that this nation’s lack of encouragement for faith-based education is contributing to the failure of some of America’s most needy children?”, Jeynes added.


He also referred to the fact that the United States regularly tops the league of the best universities in the world, yet at the same time the public school education system is “short of mediocre.”

One cause could be that at the university level there is intense competition, while at the school level public schools have almost a monopoly.

One of the conclusions that Jeynes reached was that both faith-based schools and public schools have something to learn from each other. Public school advocates would do well to admit some of the advantages that faith-based schools possess.

“Even if one is not particularly religious, faith-based schools should therefore be a source of national joy rather than a target of resentment or of reluctant resignation.”

Public educators should not view Christian and other religious school teachers as competitors or adversaries, he recommended.

This should also be the attitude to be taken by faith-based educators. As well, while faith-based schools do relatively well compared to their counterparts, they could benefit from greater classroom flexibility and the use of elective courses.

Overall, he concluded, offering a choice of education options, including faith-based schools, will provide better results for students, and he argued, “educational policy should be guided by the evidence.”

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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