Parents who choose to send their children to private schools are sometimes accused of undermining public education. These accusations are unfair, and not supported by evidence.
An almost comically strong form of the argument that it is ethically problematic to send your child to private school was published last year on the website Slate, under the headline “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.” The article presented, in bold terms, a common criticism of private school parents. It claimed that by removing their children from the public system, parents undermine public school quality. The theory behind the argument is that universal participation in the government run system is necessary to ensure high levels of political pressure for excellent public schools.
The problem with the theory is it doesn’t square with the empirical evidence. A number of different researchers have examined the impact of private school competition on public school quality, and their efforts provide little or no support to those who say it is unethical to send your child to private school.
In 2002, researchers at Columbia University conducted a meta-analysis examining the results of 12 studies on whether increased competition from private schools influenced the quality of nearby public schools. Six of the studies found no effect at all on public school quality. Three found private school competition actually tends to make nearby public schools better, and three found that private school competition has a negative impact on public school quality.
Fully 75 percent of the studies found increased competition from private schools having either no impact on the quality of public schools or actually improving them. Just one quarter of the studies found negative effects. It is thin gruel on which to base blanket criticisms of parents who decide to send their children to independent schools.
More recent research lends additional support to the notion private school competition does not undermine public schools. A 2011 study looked at the impact of a major policy change in Florida that made a large number of scholarships to private schools available to lower-income families. This initiative led to a significant uptick in private school participation. The results of the study were clear: public schools that faced an increase in private competition generally improved their performance in the first year, and continued to experience improvement over a five-year period. Far from undermining public school quality, more competition from private schools caused Florida’s public schools to improve.
Canadian evidence points in the same direction. Alberta’s policy structure is uniquely friendly to parental choice and independent alternatives to public schools. Student performance in that province consistently ranks among the best in Canada. By comparison, the Atlantic Provinces, where parental choice is more limited and private school participation rates are lower, generally rank below the Canadian average on widely respected measures of student achievement.
Attempting to protect public school quality by making it difficult for dissatisfied parents to exit the system is a prime example of a misguided approach to public policy that seeks to maintain political support for government-provided services by limiting alternatives. We see the same line of thinking in health policy debates from those who argue that the very existence of privately run and funded health services will sap public support for the public system leading to declining quality.
The evidence doesn’t back up these claims either. A number of European countries including Germany and England offer private health insurance and private service delivery options alongside a public system. Evidence from organizations including the Commonwealth Fund and the Health Consumer Powerhouse (a European health care think tank) shows the healthcare systems in these countries significantly outperform ours, despite comparable levels of funding.
All Canadians deserve access to excellent public services. However, attempting to ensure this outcome by trapping citizens in government run systems that either do not meet their needs or are simply underperforming is misguided. Limiting private alternatives doesn’t improve the quality of crucial public services such as education and health; rather, it weakens government-run institutions by protecting them from private competition that would otherwise compel them to improve.
Sweeping criticisms of parents who send their children to independent schools that better suit their child’s unique needs are grossly unfair. It’s hard enough for parents to weigh all the costs and benefits associated with the different educational options. The last thing they need or deserve is a guilt trip when they decide an independent school is the best option for their child.
Ben Eisen is the Director of Research for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
*This appeared in the opinion section of the Chronicle Herald