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How Public Education Could Achieve What Private Schools Do

Greater investment is key, enabling smaller classes with better-paid teachers, and most state and local governments have the money. But our public schools also need leadership stability and more parental involvement.

First-grade students sitting on the floor in a classroom speaking.
First-grade students at a public elementary school in Marietta, Ga., being taught a lesson on “the science of reading,” which emphasizes phonics. (Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
My wife retired this summer after teaching and counseling for 30 years at one of Atlanta’s elite pre-K-12 private schools. Beginning in half-day pre-K, our two children attended and graduated from the school. My wife also spent a year as an interim member of the Atlanta school board and another year as director of Georgia’s largest Head Start program. Through my close observation of her blended experience in public and private education and as a long-time former educator myself, I understand the private versus public education debate through a unique lens.

Instead of focusing so much on the results of high-stakes standardized testing and placing too much emphasis on performance-based funding to public schools whose students do better on tests, educators and public officials should look closely at why the best private schools usually outperform public ones. It is not that they are private; it is that, on average, they spend significantly more money per pupil on education.

According to the Education Data Initiative (EDI), in the 2021-22 school year Georgia spent $11,200 per pupil, Illinois spent $16,277 and North Carolina spent $12,345 to educate their public school students. EDI reports that private schools’ average tuition is $23,839. And that’s the average: Tuition at some private schools, such as the one where my wife worked, is over $30,000 per year. While different private schools deal with tuition revenue in different ways, a large percentage of private school tuition goes toward paying teachers good salaries. This is key to having quality education in either a private or public setting.

What is difficult for me to understand is why we continue to expect better outcomes in public education when we often spend half the amount private schools do, particularly given that public schools educate students who often face educational disadvantages resulting from family background as well as other social and economic concerns, such as food and housing insecurity and access to technology. The larger point is that it probably would cost more per student to provide private-school-quality education to public school students. But if education is the key to every student’s opportunity to access the American dream, then every dollar put into education is an investment that will pay dividends to society somewhere down the road.

If public school systems were to invest perhaps $10,000 more per student, they would realize many of the benefits that quality private schools now enjoy. For one, they could offer smaller class sizes. This would allow teachers to spend more time with students, especially those who need more individualized instruction. Smaller class sizes require more teachers, and I’m not sure that we have them in the teacher pipeline today. But one thing is for sure: If we paid teachers better, more high-achieving college students would want to go into the profession.

At the private school where my wife taught, it was not uncommon for veteran teachers to make six figures on a 10-month annual contract. Good teachers should be paid as much as those in other valued professions like engineers, doctors and lawyers. And the fact that we are experiencing a worsening teacher shortage should make teachers more in demand and therefore able to command a higher salary.

In addition to smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay, many private schools are better able to retain leadership. Without stability and continuity in leadership, schools will never be able to obtain and sustain quality. Although this is rare, my wife’s school has had one director in its 52-year history. Atlanta’s public schools, by contrast, have had two superintendents since 2014 and are searching for a third one now. Revolving-door public school leadership is a growing problem across the country.

One additional difference — one not directly related to money — is the role parents play in private schools’ governance, class activities and fundraising. When my children were in elementary school, I frequently attended their classes and read poetry to them and their classmates. For fundraising drives, even when we couldn’t afford to make a contribution we volunteered to cook chicken at the barbecue, auctioned off a home-cooked salmon dinner for four, or called other parents to ask them to make donations. We did whatever it took to help improve our children’s education, and our participation was encouraged and affirmed by the school’s teachers and administration.

I have had a different experience with public schools. Often concerned about security, some school officials don’t encourage parents to participate in school activities during the day. We all know as well that many parents of public school students have trouble getting off work to attend school events. While individual public schools may address the question of parental involvement in different ways, there usually is not a culture that encourages the type of engagement that one finds at private schools.

There are other ingredients one is usually more likely to find at private schools that make for quality education, such as the integration of art, music and physical education into the elementary curriculum; the encouragement of affinity groups for minorities, girls and LGBTQ students; and unforgettable field trips like the one my wife took with a group of kids to the Mississippi Delta. There are no reasons that some of those learning opportunities couldn’t be a larger part of public education.

Defenders of the status quo in public education funding will remind us that it is primarily paid for through property taxes and that some neighborhoods are wealthier than others. I say to them that it is way past time to change that paradigm. Coming out of the pandemic, many states and local governments have continued to bring in higher revenues. If we want to make substantive improvements to public education, guarantee high-quality education for all students regardless of the ZIP code they are born into, and ensure that students will graduate from high school ready for work or college, we must be willing to make investments in public education comparable to those made in private education.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Government and education columnist
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