Public Education, Privatization and Planning

Lance Freeman's picture

One of the greatest challenges for US cities is the perceived failure of public schools. Both as a means for attracting and retaining the middle class and for providing upward mobility public schools are crucial. Consequently, any effort to build livable cities must include successful public schools so as to provide a ladder for the poor and to attract and retain the middle class. Although education typically falls out of the purview of planning, planners can ill afford to ignore such a key component of what makes a place livable in the minds of many. Arguments about improving public schools should therefore be of interest to planners, even if in their day-to-day activities they have little time to consider public schools.

To remedy the perceived failure of urban public education myriad solutions have been offered. Among the most pervasive of solutions are those that seek to use the discipline of the market to improve the quality of education that schools offer.  The notion is that if schools have to compete for students, rather than having a captive clientele of neighborhood students, schools will step up their game, so to speak.  Vouchers, which provide public dollars to students to use at the school of their choosing, and the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows students to transfer out of failing schools are two embodiments of the call to introduce competition into the public school system.

At first glance, the notion of using competition to spur improvement in public education seems wise. Think of the quality of food served at most restaurants that have to compete for customers compared to that served at institutions with captive clienteles (e.g. hospitals).  Competition could surely work its magic on public schools as well?

I'm less than sanguine that competition would be a panacea for public education, even in places where these schools are clearly failing. Schools would probably compete, but it is not necessarily the case that educational quality would always be the primary factor they compete on. Educational quality is not an easily measurable trait.  If one looks at higher education for example, while it is clear many colleges compete for students on notions of educational quality, many others use other enticements to attract students. Semi-professional football and basketball teams, financial aid, guarantee of career success post-graduation, are but a few of the non-educational items colleges use to compete for students.

In sum, while vouchers would likely spur competition and innovation among some schools, and students and families might benefit from greater choice, it seems unlikely that by itself, privatization could remedy all that ills public education.  Rather than looking for a magic bullet in privatization and competition, we will need to make the commitment to invest the resources to improve our public schools. Other countries have managed to achieve educational excellence relying on public schools; certainly we can achieve the same.


Lance Freeman is an associate professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University.



Michael Lewyn's picture

Then again, we don't need a magic bullet

Or maybe I should say, we need two very different magic bullets. The problem of retaining the middle class and improving the education of the least well-off aren't quite the same problem. It is quite possible to solve the first problem without solving the second, or vice versa.

The first problem can be dealt with by enabling the better students (most of whom are likely to be from middle-class backgrounds) to be in their own schools within an urban school system; this can be through privatization, but doesn't have to be. Selective public magnet schools in many cities have been quite appealing to the middle class, but in most cities are not large enough to retain more than a few students. But in theory, a city could have so many such schools that any parent whose child was reasonably able could avoid the worst problems of "ordinary" public education. (Of course, it is unclear whether doing so would negatively affect the second problem...but that's a large topic in itself, and not one I have fully thought through).

The second problem is: how to improve the education of those who start off with seemingly low levels of ability, due to their family background. I am not sure any American city has done so well with this problem, so it strikes me as a much tougher nut to crack. But I doubt marginal gains on the second problem would do much to alleviate the first. Imagine a metro area where the average city SAT is 800 (on a 400-1600 scale), and the average suburban SAT is 1100. Is improving the city SAT to 850 going to do very much to bring in the middle class?

And another problem is: what happens if we succeed? Suppose city schools were as prestigious as suburban schools. Property values would rise to reflect this fact, in which case the city could retain its upper class, but would still have difficulty with its middle class.

Money and Education

"we will need to make the commitment to invest the resources to improve our public schools. Other countries have managed to achieve educational excellence relying on public schools; certainly we can achieve the same."

On the average, other industrialized countries spend about two-thirds as much per pupil as the United States and have better results.

There is plenty of research showing that "investing more resources" (=spending more money on schools) does not improve outcomes. There are things we can do to improve the quality of schooling, but money is not the key.

Apart from improved schools, the most important thing we can do to improve education is to limit children's exposure to television and other media. Research shows that children who spend 3 hours or less per day with media do better in school.

Charles Siegel

The teachers themselves are the most important factor

Surely the role of teacher's unions in preventing "competition" at the most elementary level of education, that of the teacher and his/her quality and competence; is really the most important factor?
C S Lewis pointed out back in the 1950's, that tinkering with curricula and student assessments and so on, was all doomed to failure unless the teachers themselves were subject to assessment and incentive.

There's more to it than that

Privitizing education would take money away from the public school system and give it to people to spend on any school they want. People who are well off will tend to take the money and add it to their own in order to send their children to the best school they can afford. The poor and middle class are then left with a voucher that can't pay for anything better than the public schools, which would then have less money because it's being siphoned off and given to private schools. This is a vicious circle.

Making School Vouchers Work

That is a good point, and it is why school vouchers can work only if they have this condition: the voucher can only be used at schools where it pays the full tuition.

If you want to send your child to a school that charges more than the voucher amount, you have to pay it all yourself.

If we let people add their own money to the voucher funding and pay for more expensive schools, it will just cause a spending race, with many parents adding as much as they can afford to send their children to the most exclusive schools they can afford.

Charles Siegel

Interesting proposal

That is an interesting proposal, but it would harm lower income people who are prepared to make sacrifices to get their children into a better school by paying a little more than the voucher face value.
There has to be a way round this. Income linking, and abatement of the voucher value rather than "sudden death" cancellation, perhaps?

No Need to Pay More

Read this last post about vouchers in combination with my earlier post saying we have reached a point where spending more on schooling does not improve outcomes.

In my opinion, there is no need for lower-income people to make sacrifices and pay more. International comparisons show that the amount we in the US pay for public schools is more than enough.

Charles Siegel

System wide; yes. For individual households, no.

I agree that "spending more on schooling" SYSTEM WIDE, does not improve outcomes. Spending more on any particular school seems to make very little difference. If it was a failing school, spending more money on it does not change its failure. The only spectacular "turnarounds" of a failing school, seem to relate to exceptional headmasters and teachers. But the underlying problem is the extent of social breakdown, especially the level of fatherlessness, in the school's community.
But at the level of the HOUSEHOLD, spending more money to get your children into a BETTER SCHOOL, definitely DOES improve the outcomes for that household's children.
I recently met a couple who live in the zone of a failing school, and with 2 children just in and about to reach their teens. They had spent a few months "house hunting" in zones with better schools. They decided to stay where they are, and send their children to the nearest private school. They worked out that this is less costly than paying the premium price for a home in a high-class area that is still anywhere near where they both work.

Individual Households With Voucher System

I don't think this point would apply if there were a voucher system for all parents with the limitation I mentioned earlier: that you can only use the voucher if you do not add your own money to it.

In the case you mention, spending more for a private school was the only way to get children out of a failed private school.

With this sort of voucher system, parents would have choice of schools. The voucher payment should be enough to give parents a choice among a number of successful schools. No one would have to keep their children in a failed school or pay their own money for a private school.

I agree that social breakdown is a major cause of schools' failures, but I think this sort of voucher system could be one step toward strengthening the family and community. You cannot add more money to the voucher payment, but the one thing you can do to improve the school is to volunteer your time to help the teachers - which would strengthen parents sense of their responsibility to raise their own children.

The key question is whether we, as a society, should spend more money on schooling or more time raising our own children. For many decades, we have spend more money and less time, which has not worked. We need to recognize that we spend enough money, and give parents incentives to spend more time.

Charles Siegel

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