Response to “Private Schools Are Indefensible”

On March 11, Caitlin Flanagan wrote an opinion piece titled “Private Schools are Indefensible” for The Atlantic. Mainly referencing the elite private schools of Los Angeles and Manhattan, Flanagan declared, “In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools.” Among the numerous “expensive schools” she point-blank named and criticized was our own: The Lawrenceville School.

Flanagan’s main claim is undoubtedly correct: the inequality between public and private education in the United States is abhorrent. We private school students are far better equipped to dominate both during college admissions (24 percent of Yale University’s freshman class attended independent schools, compared to the 10 percent of students that attend private schools in the U.S.) and in those elite colleges themselves. As Flanagan notes, “[2/3]two-thirds of Princeton University’s Rhode Scholars (excluding international students)” and “[47]forty-seven percent of the winners of ‘class legacy prizes’—academic awards given to students in each class” all came from private schools. In other words, private schools meticulously prepare their students for collegiate success with advanced courses, athletics in state-of-the-art facilities, and hundreds of niche extracurriculars—all opportunities that public school students do not have easy access to. For that promise of success, parents are (understandably) desperate to send their children to elite independent schools—but with the average tuition of private school at $11,004 (meanwhile, elite boarding schools such as our own cost well above $50,000), a quality education is often inaccessible to the average American family with a median income of $61,197.

While Flanagan’s article contains various truths, simply abolishing private schools cannot serve as an effective solution to this country’s broken education system. Instead, by reforming the education system through greatly improving the standards of public education, we can essentially render private schools obsolete and level the playing field for students across the country, especially during the college admissions process and college itself.

Funding inequities remain one of the largest pitfalls of the public school system—across states, differences in average state-per-pupil spending across the nation ranges from around $5,700 to $17,000, while across the nation, schools spend $2,200 per student less in schools with a greater number of students of color compared to predominantly white schools. Yet the past federal legislation on education reform has greatly shied away from funding reform; George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) held schools accountable for academic achievement through standardized testing requirements (and would ultimately shut down those who failed) while Barack Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top (RTT) program offered a total of $4.35 billion in grants to states that undertook various educational and teacher evaluation reforms. However, while the nation saw generally positive trends in student outcomes—from 1999 to 2012, 9-year-old Black students’ average reading and math test scores, out of 500 possible points, rose from 186 to 206 and 211 to 226, respectively—the majority of the jump occurred between 1999 and 2004; it remains unclear whether such success should be attributed to NCLB. As for RTT, the concurrence of various other state education reforms during its tenure raises the same concern. Furthermore, both acts struggled in its effectiveness. NCLB’s habit of simply closing struggling schools and ushering students to transfer into more highly-performing counterparts did not solve the long-term problem as to why schools were struggling in the first place, while RTT struggled to implement the majority of its promoted policies across states—in spring 2013, states used a mere 26% of RTT-recommended teacher and principal certification and evaluation practices.

In other words, the United States has no choice but to directly address the issue of funding disparities. While state and federal governments may find it difficult to interfere with district spending without infringing upon the authority of local governments, states could still stay within their limits while fixing this flawed method of funding if they moved away from considering property taxes in their funding formulas entirely. Of course, different plans work best for different states—New York’s diverse student population does not have the same needs as West Virginia’s - but states should at least consider not simply attempting to plug the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, but rather allocate funds purely based on student needs. Such methods have found success—for example, California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that provides additional funds to districts based on their concentration of “high-need students” has seen noticeable improvements in student achievement and graduation rates. From there, the districts themselves must be accountable for an appropriate direction of funding; studies have shown that investing in quality pre-kindergarten education, greater extracurricular and after-school activities, and highly-qualified educators sharply increases children’s chances of success. If we close the gap between the disparate levels of quality between public schools themselves through smarter policies, we will not only allow low-income, minority students to compete with their peers in well-funded, predominantly white neighborhoods during the college admissions process and later in life, but also make expensive private schools far less appealing, and indeed necessary, when compared to consistently high-quality and free alternatives.

Thus, to fix the problems that Flanagan outlined in her article, we must fix our broken education system and ensure that quality education ceases to be a distant luxury and instead a fundamental right for all.

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