Private Schools Are Not Superior To Public Schools

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

When you’ve lived in five different states, and you’re raising three children, and you’re a former teacher, the topic of school comes up pretty quickly as you meet new people. Every time we moved prior to having kids, I landed a teaching job in our new town, which meant I had teaching licenses in Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. I eventually left the teaching profession when I became a mom, but schools remain at the forefront of my mind as I’ve toured various buildings, spoken with principals, and done my research to guide where I enroll my kids.

However, despite moving all over the country and either teaching in or being a parent in so many different schools, one thing has remained the same: they are all public. In fact, any option other than public schools really never even crossed my mind.

I grew up attending public schools in suburban Connecticut. My parents bought the house I grew up in before I was born, and one major selling point was how close it was to the elementary, middle, and high school. My kindergarten through high school years in the same public school district were all I knew, so when I went to college to earn my teaching certificate, applying to public schools for teaching positions was the next logical step for me.

Are there public schools in America who need help? An overhaul even? Yes. But the assumption across the board that private schools offer kids a superior education is simply not true.

I have learned, however, now that I’m a mom of three school-aged kids, that there can be a stigma attached to a “public school” education—which is something I didn’t realize before. But it is something that offends me now, as a mom, former teacher, and former student of public schools myself.

Here’s the thing: all schools have issues. All schools have at least one or two problematic teachers or who do the bare minimum as they count the minutes to retirement. All schools have kids with parents/caregivers who struggle at home—financially, mentally, or who can’t figure out the best way to help their children. All schools have a budget—some larger that others—but they all have to divvy up those funds and allocate which teachers get which supplies, which programs get more funding, and what to do when the class runs out of pencils and kids can’t afford to buy lunch.

All schools have kids who fail, and kids who succeed. And they all have, at some point, teachers and administrators who fail, and teachers and administrators who win awards and change kids’ lives and whose names appear in books, and news stories, and college application letters.

And all schools have kids who will expose your sweet, innocent cherub to to certain things well before you, the parent, are ready.

All schools, public and private.

So why do advocates of private school sometimes (read: often) place their buildings, staff and programs on a higher pedestal than their local public schools? Well, even The Washington Post says that’s a bunch of bullshit, reporting the findings of a recent study proving that private schools aren’t actually superior at all.

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

University of Virginia researchers looked at data from over than 1,000 students and found that once socio-demographic factors come into the equation, public schools do not offer an inferior education as so many are led to believe. Additionally, private schools are often only equipped to handle neutrotypical children, which means that children with special needs or learning differences may be unable to attend or may not receive the education that best meets their needs.

And this study is particularly important right now, as our stellar Trump-appointed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is trying to privatize public education and convince America that private schools are better. Well, as a member of one of the richest families in the U.S. with a net worth of $5.4 billion, maybe she attributes her family’s private school education as the reason for their wealth. (Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rich parents typically end up having rich kids, for obvious reasons, regardless of where they attend school.)

DeVos even went so far as calling public schools a “dead end” in her advocacy for voucher expansion, which would allow more families to send their kids to private school while pulling resources from the public school system.

A “dead end.” That’s the message she’s sending to our public school teachers—teachers who work tirelessly every day, preparing their classrooms and researching new ideas to keep their students engaged and excited about learning. Teachers who hug our kindergarteners when they miss their mommies and who hug our seniors as they cross the graduation stage, diploma in hand. Teachers who can’t sleep at night because they are worrying about their students with test anxiety or who don’t have a friend to sit with at lunch. Teachers who work tirelessly to educate America’s youth and then go home to parent their own kids as well. Teachers whose lessons are interrupted to review lockdown drills and who are tasked with the responsibility of shielding 20-something innocent lives from bullets.

And they do all this for an offensively paltry salary.

A “dead end?” No.

When you take out socioeconomic factors like income, there are no measurable markers for superiority in private over public.

As a former public school student and teacher, and as a mom whose children attend public schools, I am immensely proud of, and in support of, America’s public schools. I’ll tell you where the dead end is, Mrs. DeVos, and it’s not in these hallways or classrooms.

The dead end is that ignorant mindset you’re perpetuating that my kids, and other public school students, aren’t getting an adequate education. And that I didn’t receive a good education. That I didn’t provide a good education to my students. That when we dissected the societal impact of The Handmaid’s Tale and Native Son and Hamlet and wrote essays with proper introductions and transitions and when my former students came back to visit me, telling me how proud they were to get an A on their first college paper, that I hadn’t done as good of a job as a private school teacher would have.

I reject that.

My classroom was not a dead end.

My lessons were a path to success and higher levels of thinking and better writing skills. I was opening my students’ minds to the beauty of diversity and inclusion and how literature can be a mirror by which we see the world.

Listen, are there public schools in America who need help? An overhaul even? Yes. Nobody is denying that. But the assumption across the board that private schools offer kids a superior education is factually untrue. What do they offer? Quite often, a place for rich, white kids to grow up around other rich, white kids. But a better education? No.

And if you don’t believe me, read this:

“Despite the frequent and pronounced arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools as a solution for vulnerable children and families attending local or neighborhood schools, the present study found no evidence that private schools, net of family background (particularly income), are more effective for promoting student success,” The Washington Post reports.

Basically, the study found that high student achievement is largely related to the parents’ income and education level. This means that more often than not, kids who come from a home where Mom and Dad can afford the extra stuff—the laptops, the books, the tutors, the resources to apply to college—and where Mom and Dad are educated themselves, tend to do better in the long run.

But here’s the thing—that’s the trend for both public and private schools. When you take out socioeconomic factors like income, there are no measurable markers for superiority in private over public. They are all just a bunch of buildings with hard-working teachers and kids being kids.

So FYI, Betsy, in response to your attempts to get more kids in private schools and away from their “dead end” public school educations, this study says this: “In sum, we find no evidence for policies that would support widespread enrollment in private schools, as a group, as a solution for achievement gaps associated with income or race.”

In fact, a 2013 book, “The Public School Advantage,” by Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, reports that public school students actually outperform private school students in mathematic performance. Isn’t that something?

The truth is, all kids need support and need resources like books and computers, pencils and paper, and nutritious foods. All students with learning disabilities need accommodations to level the playing field so they can succeed. All students need supportive teachers with the energy, drive, and passion to educate America’s youth.

But whether they get those things in public or private schools doesn’t matter, as long as they get them.

As the Secretary of Education for the United States, how about a plan to do better for all of America’s kids? How about rather than insulting the hard work and dedication of public school teachers, we ensure all of our kids have a proper lunch, have the materials they need, and have teachers who are paid fairly and properly supported?

We don’t need your vouchers or your public school insults, Betsy DeVos. We need you to do your job, for all of America’s students. Our public schools need you and everyone else to stop shitting on them and realize that they are full of amazing teachers and bright, inspired kids who will grow up to work right alongside their peers who attended private schools.

And you know what? I’ll bet when my kids are adults and heading off to work someday, you won’t even be able to tell that they attended public school. (They’ll probably tell you about it though, because they’ll want to brag about how awesome it was.)

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