Is Equity at Stake in Private Schooling? (Part 1 of 2)

For those watching the educational development media, the rising clamor around “school choice for the poor” has been difficult to miss. The argument goes like this: “There are many low-cost private schools in the world that do better than public schools, and the poorest of the poor are using these schools—so let’s support them.”

In a November article in the Spectator, British educator and Cato Institute scholar James Tooley once again raised the case for private education, arguing that educational rights activist Malala Yousafzai is in fact arguing for private education, not public education. His contention, which was unsupported by any interview with Malala herself, was subject to considerable criticism. That Tooley’s pro-private school piece made its way, openly unsubstantiated, into a major media source like the Spectator, evidences the editorial board’s sense of public interest in the private school advocacy movement.

Tooley is at the spearhead of a major attack on public schools worldwide, an attack driven by disappointing public sector performance, high teacher absenteeism, and frequent reports of corruption and scandal. These proponents of private schools, often backed by libertarian NGOs such as the Cato Institute, argue for a wide array of measures to promote private school alternatives, with options ranging from simply tolerating the existence of private schools to fully disbanding public education and replacing it with private education.

In this post and the following, we will look at private schooling from the vantage-point of equity.

Equity: outputs, not inputs

A central refrain amongst the many justifications for private schooling centers on equity: Private schools give kids a better shot than what they would have otherwise, so taking away public schools decreases equity.

In education, “equity” refers not to making all schools look the same (which would be “equality”) but to helping all children have the same opportunity to succeed. Certainly, beautiful, well-resourced schools and strong teachers increase the odds of success, but, as comparisons of international test results between expensive U.S. schools and their Asian counterparts have shown us, bigger inputs don’t always produce bigger results. In educational development, equity—not equality—is the goal.

But do private schools increase equity? Many have argued long and hard from exactly the opposite perspective.

Private schools as stratifying agents

The arguments against private schooling vary, but most intersect in one way or another with the central premise that private schools lead to increased stratification in society. While no two public schools are the same, inasmuch as they reflect the society in which they are geographically located—thus the de facto “re-segregation” found in many inner-city schools—private schools further stratify the student population. In 2010, Alegre and Ferrer, two researchers at Universitat Auton ma de Barcelona, used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test to argue that the more market-driven a nation’s educational system is, the more stratified it becomes. Rather than acting as a melting pot, drawing together students from diverse social classes and racial or religious backgrounds, private schooling has the opposite effect, self-sorting students by the same variables that mark the boundaries of diversity. Those arguing against the proliferation of private schools argue that economic classes cluster together by schools, with students’ families following their friends, leaving private schools to those unable to afford private education.

Evidence like that produced by Alegre and Ferrer points to the reality that, within a nation’s boundaries, private schools allow inequity to persist and, as private schooling grows, the gaps between the educational opportunities for the wealthiest and poorest grows ever wider.

Looking at equity through a national lens reveals difficult realities for private schooling. The international lens, however, paints a different picture.

Private schools and international equity

Ironically, while private schools can increase stratification nationally, they can also function to decrease stratification internationally. Elite private schools in economically-disadvantaged nations often offer world-class education, with students performing on-par with their counterparts in wealthier nations. While not all children can earn a world-class education in developing countries, at least some of the nation’s young are able to earn the caliber of education needed to prepare globally-competitive professionals.

Test data from Latin America and elsewhere illustrate this point. Most private Latin American international schools following the American educational model test their students against U.S. schools using NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP). In spring of 2012, students in grades 8-10 in these private schools—in a region generally lagging the United States in international comparisons—scored at or above the average scores achieved by U.S. schools. This outperformance is consistent with historical trends.

Elite Latin American private schools

United States norm group

Latin American Private school outperformance

Grade

Math

Reading

Writing

Math

Reading

Writing

Math

Reading

Writing

8

235

222

223

235

222

221

0

0

2

9

239

226

223

236

223

222

3

3

1

10

240

224

223

237

224

223

3

0

0

Ideally, the public sector in Latin America would provide internationally-equitable educational quality as well. However, until this happens, private schools provide a mechanism for providing on-par or above-par educational access for students in these countries.

And the academic equity advantage is not only found in elite schools. Using India and other economically-disadvantaged nations as test cases, Tooley, in his book The Beautiful Treeproduces extensive data from standardized tests to show that even poorly-resourced “low-fee private schools”—schools which cater to families who live in impoverished slums—private schools consistently outperform public schools, bringing children closer to the performance of peers in privileged nations.

Until significant changes transpire in government schools in Latin America, India, and elsewhere, private schools provide something that government schools do not: access to higher-quality education in economically-disadvantaged nations not provided in government schools.

Equity for all students?

Due to the higher test performance found in private schools which cater to the poor, Tooley asserts that the low-fee private school option, in fact, brings greater educational opportunity, even to “the poorest of the poor”. We’ll examine this claim in our next post.

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One thought on “Is Equity at Stake in Private Schooling? (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: » Is Equity at Stake in Private Schooling? (Part 1 of 3) | Education …

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