Let’s Not Be Intimidated by Private Schools but Take Them as Opportunity

In Slovakia, the risks that private schools can pose to poor children are being debated. In particular, one such critic of private schools from Centre for Educational Analysis writes that “however, several studies show that instead of improving the quality of all schools, the unregulated establishment of private schools can deepen educational inequalities”.

Let’s Not Be Intimidated by Private Schools but Take Them as Opportunity

In this commentary, I will in turn present other research that shows that unregulated private schooling can improve the outcomes of even those children who remain in public schools, and so private alternatives help to reduce inequalities and improve the quality of education across the board.

This is a big issue in the United States, for example, where those alternatives are so-called charter schools – free schools paid for with public money. Two interesting studies came out in 2019 about their impact on public schools.

The results of the first one suggest that the more charter schools were in an area, the more student outcomes improved for students from other schools as well. And this was especially true for children from black and Hispanic families across the US.

The second study was more locally focused and looked at education in North Carolina, where a cap on the maximum number of charter schools was removed in 2011. In areas where new schools subsequently opened, the performance of even those students who remained in the original schools improved. These findings are no exception, and several review studies report slightly positive or at worst neutral impacts of charter schools.

In fact, it’s just the opposite of what critics of private schools write. We shouldn’t weaponize against private schools because poorer kids stay in public schools. But we should actively support private schools for poor kids, too. The reason is that non-public schools are proving to be an excellent and workable tool for educating children who are born into generational poverty. Here, the consensus on significant positive impacts is already stronger.

Charter schools in the U.S. are attended primarily by poorer children from various minority groups who live in segregated ghettos. And it is these children that charter schools are able to help significantly over traditional public schools. Not to mention the global research from the developing world, where private, low-cost, parent-funded schools provide the poorest children on the planet with a quality education.

The critic goes on to argue that “the higher quality education or innovative approaches that private schools can afford because of the additional financial resources are thus not passed on to the whole education system but become less accessible to children and young people from poorer backgrounds.”

There are two problems with this claim – one empirical and one theoretical. First, no one has shown any data or studies to suggest that this is happening in Slovakia. Second, even if it were true that more innovative practices are not being transferred from private to public schools in Slovakia, the conclusion that “they are becoming less accessible to children from poorer backgrounds” does not follow at all.

The fact that children from private schools have access to N+1 innovations does not mean that those from poorer backgrounds therefore have access to N-1 innovations. In other words, educational innovation is not a zero-sum game.

Thus, the fact that we can help a group of children get a better education should not be a reason to criticize just because other children do not have that opportunity. To say otherwise is socialist thinking on the level that if my goat dies, so should my neighbor’s.

The main statistic he uses to back up his warnings about the possible negative effects of private schools in Slovakia is the observation that “while 7.2% of such (poor) children are in state primary schools, only 1.8% are in private schools… It is, therefore, clear that four times fewer poor children go to private primary schools than to state schools.”

This poses a problem, critics say, because private schools pull out mainly children from better-off households and the rest – the poorer ones – stay in public schools. And that’s a problem, because it puts more demands on teachers “who may not be prepared to teach in classrooms with a high proportion of children with special educational needs.”

The problem with this claim is that the statistics described above don’t necessarily illustrate that this is happening in Slovakia. The large difference in the proportion of poor children in private schools can be largely explained, for example, by the fact that private schools are more likely to be established in wealthier regions, districts and cities where there is a lower concentration of poor children.

And, conversely, private schools are absent in poor communities where there is a relatively high proportion of poor children. Aggregate averages for the whole country or individual regions then create a false impression.

Further, critics back up their claims linking private schools to educational inequality with international statistics showing that “among the countries with lower proportions of male and female pupils in private schools are countries with highly inclusive education systems, such as Finland (4.1%) and Estonia (3.9%).”

Yes, but he forgot to add that among the countries with the lowest representation of pupils in private schools are countries such as Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kosovo, and Ukraine.

For the reasons described above, I think that critics of private schools are unjustifiably creating an atmosphere that there is some contradiction between the expansion of private schooling in Slovakia and quality education for poor children.

Yet, a number of foreign studies show how the presence of private schools can also help public schools and the poorer students in them. Or, at the very least, their presence is neutral. And at the same time, the best way to help children stuck in generational poverty abroad turns out to be private schools, which were created to get children out of poor-quality public schools and provide them with a quality education.

Thus, in Slovakia, we need more alternatives, more private schools to help all children. Especially in a situation where we have 2.6% of children attending private primary schools.

4liberty, March 21

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