Um, You Missed Some Evidence: A “Thought Experiment” Fails Private Schooling

To paraphrase John Lennon, imagine there are no public schools, or private ones, too. That is what writer Julie Halpert ostensibly does in a new Atlantic article in which she purports to conduct a “thought experiment,” first imagining a world of all private schools, then one of all public. But rather than coming off as a true, objective experiment, the piece reads more like a dystopian novel depicting the horrors of an imagined all-private system, while comparatively glancing past the many real, actually experienced stains and injustices of public schooling.

It’s not auspicious that the article, before the “experiment” is even proposed, begins with a description of the posh Detroit Country Day School, which likely reinforces the impression that many people seem to have that private schools are snooty preserves of the uber-rich. Halpert notes that the price of Detroit Country Day for high school is about $30,000 per year, but doesn’t mention that the average tuition at a private high school, according to the most recent federal data, is only about $13,000. That average price is high when you’re comparing it to “free” public schools for which you’ve already paid taxes, but not Detroit Country Day high.

With commencement of the experiment we are given a little history…very little. Halpert completely bypasses American educational history prior to Horace Mann’s crusade for common schools starting in the 1830s, noting only that some of our oldest high schools, specifically tony West Nottingham Academy and Phillips Academy, date back to the 18th Century. Halpert also writes that Mann was largely responsible for “the perception of education as a public good.” She ignores the evidence the education was delivered in myriad ways and was very widespread prior to the common schooling crusade—about 90 percent of white adults were literate by 1840—or that it often had a heavily moral character geared at both the private and public good. This is a huge omission, leaving out evidence that largely private provision of education, though sometimes with a modicum of government funding, worked, at least for those who weren’t subjugated by law. Law which was, of course, promulgated by government, the entity that would supply public schools.

Halpert does somewhat acknowledge a flaw in public schooling, saying that “Mann’s good intentions didn’t always translate into the kind of diversity he envisioned.” Now, Mann’s target may have been diversity in classrooms, but it was greater uniformity coming out, and Halpert at least cites Holy Cross historian Jack Schneider pointing out that the common schools were geared to inculcate basic Protestant beliefs, and were often openly hostile to Catholics. Alas, this is about as deep as the experiment dives into public schooling’s most painful flaw: its repeatedly demonstrated, poisonous inability to handle pluralism and treat diverse people equally even when it wants to, and its easy employment as a tool for soft and sometimes overt, uniform indoctrination. At times the indoctrination has been letting everyone know they should be Protestant, other times it’s been letting them know they must be Nazis. The use of public schools for brain-washing indoctrination in places like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are on the extreme end, of course, but Mann himself was clear that he wanted to create greater uniformity in thought and behavior through public schooling—to create a “more far-seeing intelligence, and a purer morality, then has ever existed among communities of men”—as have many public schooling advocates since. Acknowledging that public schooling has repeatedly been used as a tool for social and political control must be a major part of any thought experiment that would objectively contemplate all-public education. But it is not here.

Continuing on, Halpert quickly notes that “not all private schools fall in the same category as Detroit Country Day,” but rather than using that to explicitly state that most private schools are much less expensive, she deploys it in an attack on an all-private system, saying that because private schools can differentiate, “reliable information on school quality would likely be nonexistent.” She continues, explaining that because private schools operate independently, “they’re generally not subject to rules holding them accountable for a certain level of student performance. No rules mean no agreed-upon measures, which mean no standardized assessments whose results parents and policymakers can consult.”

No agreed-upon measures?

Often totally on their own, many private schools have for decades given nationally norm-referenced tests such as the Terra Nova, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and California Achievement Test, to help schools and parents assess how children are doing. They also readily participate in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. And, of course, lots of private school kids take the SAT and ACT, and schools pursue accreditation. Private schools have a powerful incentive to share nationally comparable test results if parents value them, because parents will demand to see them when deciding where to send their kids. Research has shown parents with choice indeed do this, though they often, very reasonably, put other things, like safety, and whether the schools seem to care for children, higher on their priority lists.

In contrast to the metric-free chaos we’d see in an all-private system, Halpert writes that public schools provide “critical information about a particular school [that] is generally accessible to anyone. This accountability reduces ‘the possibility that parents could be duped,’ said the College of the Holy Cross’s Schneider.”

Really? Let’s remember what common public school metrics have too often looked like: “proficiency” that is often a very low bar and varies wildly from state to state; empty graduation rates; and inscrutable “report cards.” And remember that all children and families are different, and there is huge disagreement over what education is all about, which means no single metric—or two, or three—can capture what makes each individual school special, or what each child needs. There’s public schooling’s inability to handle diversity again! Halpert does cite me noting that all kids are different, but I’m sandwiched between lengthy quotes saying that accountability and good info in an all-private system are impossible, concrete evidence to the contrary notwithstanding…or mentioned. I appear to be but a foil.

Next we get to the inequality-based condemnation of private schooling, an attack predicated on the premise that rich people can get better private schooling than poor, therefore private schooling is bad. When it comes to evidence, this is primarily grounded in conjecture and Chile, which has significant school choice but is also accused of significant inequality in school access.

As a logical proposition, the rich-will-get-better-stuff argument makes little sense: the rich will be able to access better schools than the poor with or without vouchers. What vouchers do is just even things up a bit. And even if private schools were totally outlawed, wealthier people could buy houses in better districts, which is exactly what happens now. Halpert addresses that, but not until the end of the experiment, and not until citing numerous academics declaring that choice would clearly stratify and segregate, and Halpert offering this whopper: “experts tend to agree an all-public-school world would make the United States a higher-functioning, and more harmonious, place by exposing students to peers from different backgrounds.”

Maybe most of the experts Halpert talked to concluded that, but that appears to have been a heavily slanted lot. From what I can tell the only choice supporters she talked to were folks from Detroit Country Day, me, AEI’s Andy Smarick, and Barbara Gee from the group Private Schools with a Public Purpose. Worse, she only cites Smarick pointing out that how much power parents should have over school selection is still a contentious topic; seems to throw me in as a foil; and cites Gee saying kids with dyslexia are actually better served at public than private schools. (The latter after only parenthetically and with big cost modifiers noting that there are private schools that actually specialize in working with kids with disabilities.) Oh, and at the very end she quotes Donna Orem from the National Association of Independent Schools asking, “Would America be as creative if all the schools in the country were the same?” It’s an important question, but far too little, far too late, appearing at the end of a very long assault on private schooling.

Of course, more important than what experts say is what the evidence says, and it is against the assertion that public schools are better harmonizers than private.

Not only are public schools hugely segregated, which again Halpert only gets to after a long, sharp take-down of private schooling, she ignores the lengthy empirical evidence that U.S. school choice programs typically provide as good or better education than public schools, usually at a fraction of the cost, and that they actually tend to reduce racial segregation. Far worse, her experiment totally ignores public schooling’s shameful past when it comes to integration, including sometimes painful efforts to “Americanize” immigrants, and decades of forced racial segregation. Well, I shouldn’t say “totally”: the piece does quickly mention “desegregation efforts,” but only to criticize private schools. Without discussing mandated racial segregation in public school at all, Halpert writes that the private school enrollment share is higher in Nashville, Tennessee, than nationally as a “result of desegregation efforts that prompted white families to seek educational settings where their kids wouldn’t be forced to learn alongside black children.”

If the point of the experiment is to objectively assess public and private schooling, this egregious omission should lead to the whole lab being shut down. To ignore what public schooling did for over a century—and continues to do through housing patterns—but condemn private schools because some people, who had gotten their way for so long through public schools, tried to use private schooling to keep getting their way, is utterly illogical, unfair, but also all too common.

No attack on choice would be complete without a mention of Finland, but Halpert also focuses heavily on Cuba to show how great a no-choice system would be. And Chile, which has widespread school choice, has to be held up as a bad guy. Now, the Finland miracle has been debunked many times, in part by the country’s own falling scores on the exam on which it excelled—the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA)—as well as its lesser results on other exams, but Cuba has gotten very little attention.

Halpert holds Cuba up as an educational powerhouse, and quotes Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond saying that even Chile’s best students “couldn’t come close” to replicating Cuba’s achievement levels. So why haven’t we heard more about this? Probably in part because Cuba has never participated in the big international assessments such as PISA or the Trends in International Math and Science Study. Also, with an authoritarian regime like Cuba’s, there is always a tinge of doubt that the results being reported are real. And then there is the inconvenient reality that Cuba is a dictatorship—not exactly the ideal people want to openly advocate for.

Those things said, Cuba appears to have done very well relative to other participating Latin American countries on two exams: the First Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (PERCE) and the Second Regional Comparative Explanatory Study (SERCE). And that did include outpacing Chile. Which shouldn’t be surprising: authoritarian regimes often have high achieving education systems into which they pour great amounts of attention and resources. Why? Because, as noted already, education is a huge tool for control!

But there’s an important irony here. While Cuba’s system may produce high scores, it does not appear to produce equity. Cuba’s overall performance well outpaced other Latin American countries, but it also typically produced by far the biggest gaps between its top and bottom performers. In other words, it suffered from the most achievement inequality. Apparently, some Cuban kids are more equal than others. Meanwhile, Chile was consistently in the upper ranks in achievement when Cuba participated in the tests, but had roughly middling gaps between top and bottom performers. For what it’s worth, Chile consistently finished first in the Third Regional Exploratory Study, which Cuba sat out.

If Cuba is your shining example of what an all-public-schooling system could look like, you have a huge problem. You have an even bigger problem if you don’t seem to realize that.

In a way, uncritically using repressive, dictatorial Cuba in this “thought experiment” exemplifies exactly what is wrong with it: it eschews or soft-pedals almost all of the unpleasant—and sometimes downright awful—realities of public schooling, while heaping worst-case-scenario prognostications on private schooling. It seems, even if not intended, like an experiment designed to get one result: illustrate that an all-private education system would be awful. And that’s not scientific at all.