Public and Private Schools of Thought

One Size Does Not Fit All

Imagine a society in which only the affluent could buy their own shoes. The poor and a significant percentage of the middle class paid taxes to support a state-run distribution system which supplied shoes--a public shoe system, if you will.

The main drawback of this arrangement, however, was that the private businesses which sold shoes to the wealthy were compelled by market forces to provide high-quality shoes in styles and sizes that suited their customers' needs. If they failed to do this, they would go out of business.

The public shoe system, by contrast, was subsidized regardless of the quality and desirability of its wares, for its customers did not have the option of going elsewhere.

Moreover, since the public shoe system was a large, impersonal, centralized government agency, it was not flexible enough to respond to consumer needs and only issued one style and size of shoe. While the affluent were wearing shoes that were right for them, the poor and much of the middle class had to limp along in shoes that were too big, too small or the wrong style. Only occasionally did the product suit the customer.

Some middle-class people could have afforded to move up into the world of private shoe stores, but the taxes they were forced to pay to support the public shoe system kept their income too low for this. Worst of all, those dependent on the public shoe system were required to patronize the branch in their neighborhood, even if it was in bad repair, with broken windows, damaged goods and thugs waiting outside.

Then along came a president who promised to reform all this. The poor and the struggling middle class, his main constituency, were filled with hope.

But the new president disappointed them. All he meant by "reform" was permission to patronize different branches of the public shoe system. He claimed this would improve the system through "managed competition." He failed to explain how such "competition" could significantly affect the quality of a branch of the system when all branches sold the same product and most of the consumers had no bargaining power.

But the biggest disappointment of all came when the President bought his young daughter a closet full of Gucci pumps for his Inaugural Ball. "Hillary and I felt these were more suitable for our daughter's feet," he said. "We're not going to sacrifice our daughter's orthopedic development to make a political point."

The situation above is clearly absurd. Yet we tolerate a similar state of affairs when we support public schools as the only way of making education affordable to everyone.

If a range of choices is important when buying shoes, it is equally if not more vital in education. As the hypothetical story above suggests, there are two main problems with the public school system.

One is the shoddy and unsafe condition of some of its branches, and the other is the standardization of the product. "Managed competition" may solve the former problem, but the latter is more of a long-term threat and results from the fact that the system is run by, and primarily responsible to, centralized government bureaucracies rather than communities of consumers.

Just like shoes, schools come in a variety of sizes and styles. Some explicitly affirm and teach a set of values, a political ideology or a set of religious beliefs, while others have a hands-off approach to children's moral and spiritual value-finding. Some are geared to the needs of gifted children, while others are equipped to handle children with behavioral or learning disabilities (something the public school "special ed" system does poorly). Others have a specific ethnic or gender composition which empowers and nurtures the students.

Of course there are public schools which function well in their communities and fulfill the needs of their clientele. The point is that when they don't, the clientele is stuck with the product as it is, whether or not it fits their children.

Moreover, government schools are under ideological pressures that make it more difficult for them to provide the services mentioned above. Religious topics cannot be mentioned because the Supreme Court thinks this would constitute state-supported religion. We also feel uncomfortable with the idea of a government school teaching our children a particular ideology.

Yet studies of educational psychology have indicated that children develop more stable and responsible characters if their schooling environment teaches them a consistent set of values. If private schools were available to everyone, the opportunity to attend a school responsive to the values of its community would not be a prerogative of the affluent.

Clinton's decision to send Chelsea to a private school is reasonable in itself. Considering the political circles in which the Clintons will be moving for the next four years, a posh private school like Sidwell Friends would be a good place for Chelsea to make contacts and to learn to adapt to her family's new lifestyle.

In addition, Washington is not the safest city in the world, and if its public schools are anything like New York's, a public figure like Chelsea might not be safe there.

Clinton demonstrates hypocrisy, however, when he supports the public school system, denying poor and middle-class parents access to the diversity of schools that the Clintons enjoy.

Yet privatization by itself is not the answer, since many poor parents could not afford private schools even in the absence of a public school tax. The solution is more complicated.

The government has a stake in ensuring the education of all its citizens, since an educated citizenry is the foundation of a good democracy. Yet the government has no business determining the content of that education. In addition, it is incapable of tailoring its services to its clients.

Instead of spending money on a school system, the government should provide education subsidies to poor people, a sort of national financial aid. Tax credits and vouchers are enough for many in the middle class, but are not sufficient for others.

In the terms of the story, this would mean giving the people money to go buy the right kind of shoes from private stores instead of issuing them all the same kind of shoe. At present, a government peddling one-size-fits-all education is like the prince making the rounds with the glass slipper, satisfying the lucky Cinderella who wears the right size but leaving everyone else sitting in the ashes.