The British Labour Party’s vote to ban private schools — by taking away tax exemptions and charitable status and redistributing the assets of schools — is prompting a round of commentary in America.
The director of national research at EdChoice, Mike McShane, describes the proposal as “illiberal,” which for him is a negative. McShane, writing at Forbes.com, cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1925 opinion in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which unanimously struck down an Oregon law requiring all students to attend public school: “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
The idea of banning private schools has surfaced sporadically here in the United States, driven in part by Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Warren Buffett, who is a graduate of the Washington, D.C. public schools.
Michelle Rhee, who was chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, wrote in 2010:
Warren Buffett framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education.
“Make private schools illegal,” he said, “and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.”
On April 29, 2011, the former New York City schools chancellor, Joel Klein, spoke at the Manhattan Institute’s annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner. Klein recounted the same Buffett anecdote: “Buffett said public education would change entirely if we eliminated private schools and all of us had to send our kids to public education.”
Buffett’s suggestion, or thought experiment, notwithstanding, here in the U.S., the idea of banning private schools has been so unpopular that people have hesitated to voice it publicly. Earlier this year, the website fivethirtyeight.com featured the concept in its “Political Confessional” column, “about the views that Americans are scared to share with their friends and neighbors.” The column interviewed “C., a 42-year-old biracial woman who lives in New York City and is a scientific researcher.” Protected by anonymity, she observed, “The kids who went to private school tended to be what would colloquially be termed frat boys. That was the sort of cultural identity that I put on those kinds of kids. They had boats and lake houses and third homes.”
One press outlet that has explored the issue is the Atlantic. In 2017, the magazine’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewed New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and asked her about it:
Goldberg: If you were the dictator of America, would you outlaw private schools? Would you force all the white kids, and all the upper-middle class and upper-class African-American kids, into the public-school system? You’d have a deep level of parental involvement, right? Are private schools immoral in this context?
Nikole Hannah-Jones answered in part: “The answer to your question is yes, you would have to. If you truly wanted to equalize and integrate schools, you would have to.”
The Atlantic returned to the question in 2018 with an article that claimed, “if there wasn’t such a thing as private education to steer more-affluent families away from public schools—the United States might be able to boast stronger academic results than it can in the real world.” There’d be other benefits, too, the article claimed: “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.”
The Atlantic article conceded, “Few believe that an entirely public- or private-school world is ideal, let alone feasible.”
Public opinion, however, can change quickly, as can the law. Defenders of private education would be foolish to ignore or dismiss the gathering threat represented by the British Labour Party’s decision. Already, American private education has weathered a significant enrollment decline, to about 9 percent of the elementary population from 15 percent, as documented in the Fall 2018 issue of Education Next (“Who Goes To Private School?”) This has not been caused by a formal ban, but public policy certainly does play a role. Government drives up the cost of private education by using its taxing and borrowing power to compete with private schools for teaching talent and for students.
What is the best way to respond to this push to outlaw private education?
A defense of private education rests on three main prongs. The first is legal. Even beyond the Pierce v. Society of Sisters precedent, any effort to implement a British-Labour-Party-style ban in the U.S. would collide into the U.S. Constitution’s provisions protecting freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the free exercise of religion. It could also raise issues with the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment and, conceivably, under a broad definition, the 13th Amendment. You don’t have to be Clarence Thomas to recognize the perils of trampling these freedoms; Justice Louis Brandeis, no foe of big government, was part of the Pierce majority.
The second is practical. How would the government prevent students from gathering after school or on weekends for fee-based additional or supplementary instruction? Unless the public-school proponents plan to ban those kinds of classes, abolishing private schools is unlikely to achieve the egalitarian goals that its advocates say they seek. They’d also need to eradicate local school district boundaries, which now allow families of means to sort into neighborhoods served by what the Fordham Institute has called “private public schools.” Even with the assets from seizing private school property, public school systems and budgets would struggle to accommodate the influx of more than 5 million new students. Finally, it’s not clear that banning private schools would achieve the goal of improving the public schools. Eliminating the private schools would eliminate competition that helps keep the public schools on their toes; research suggests that competition from private schools improves student achievement in public schools.
The third is a broader defense of the private sector, extending beyond elementary and secondary education. What’s the logical line distinguishing between banning private schools and banning private colleges and universities? Or banning private, non-profit hospitals and forcing everyone into government-run hospitals? Or banning bookstores in favor of government-run libraries? Or banning private television and radio in favor of public broadcasting? Or banning backyards in favor of public parks? Banning private automobiles in favor of public subways and buses? Banning private restaurants or home kitchens in favor of government-run dining halls? Outlawing private farms in favor of forced collectivization? Critics will say these are all examples of the slippery slope fallacy. But it is no accident that an example often cited by proponents of the private school ban is Cuba, a repressive dictatorship where government control extends well beyond the schools.
The Cuba example is instructive, though not in the way intended by advocates of public-only education. According to one news report, “Private education is steadily increasing in Cuban society, driven by the low quality of classes taught by teachers on the island’s public education system.” The Associated Press reported in 2016 that “Cuba’s blooming entrepreneurial system has quietly created something that looks much like a private education sector, with thousands of students across Cuba enrolled in dozens of afterschool and weekend foreign language and art schools… Parents spend about 250 Cuban pesos ($10) a month, around half the average state worker’s salary, to give their children early advantages in English and the arts. Math and science are also taught privately, in less formal settings that more closely resemble group private tutoring.”
All these lines of argument are useful enough in their own ways, but they amount to defense. In education politics, as in war and sports, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Rather than being drawn into a debate about their own right to exist, private-school proponents may be able to rebalance the argument by asking why public schools should exist. The public schools cost more than private schools without producing better academic results. The public schools have egregious levels of racial segregation, large class sizes, deteriorating physical facilities, on-campus violence, and student-teacher sex scandals. Elementary and secondary public schools score worse on public opinion surveys than do colleges and universities, where private schools have a larger share. Public schools attempt something inherently difficult or at least historically rare, which is to educate youths for a meaningful and purposeful life without inculcating any religious traditions. The government-monopoly structure of service delivery in public schools is at odds with the private competition and choice that has led to the strength and success of the rest of the American economy, from high-technology to craft beer.
Lest I be misinterpreted, I’m not seriously proposing to outlaw public schools. I’d be fine with merely not compelling anyone to attend one. Many public schools are excellent. At a minimum, their continued existence does provide some modest downward pressure on private-school tuition. But if the movement to outlaw private schools does spread further to this side of the Atlantic, defenders of private education will want to have their arguments—including the provocative ones—ready and waiting.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.