Thursday, January 11, 2007

Myth of the day: Private schools are expensive

In August 2000, the CIS published an extremely insightful and useful report looking into the reality of private schooling in Australia. Here are some of the key findings that should demolish some of the left-wing mythology that private schools are for the rich and elitist, with many unneccesary frills and facilities, and they are super-competitive and the only reason parents send their children there is to achieve excellent study scores.
In contrast is the left wing opinion that public schools are cheap and efficient, help students socialize with people from different backgrounds and makes them better characters, and provide quality education to the struggling classes.

Fact 2: Private schools have spent less per student than public schools.
From 1990 until 1997, average expenditure per private school student was lower than the average expenditure per public school studen

Fact 3: Private schools are not ‘elitist’.
More than 30% of students in private schools are from families with an income of less than $41,600 per annum. This is almost the same proportion as students from families with incomes of $62,400 or more per annum. The other 40% of students lie between these two income brackets. Both public and private schools have significant proportions of students across the full range of family income levels. Furthermore, very few private schools are academically selective.
Also important is the fact that 17% of students in public schools are from households with incomes of $62,400 or more.

Fact 4: Private schools achieve better results than public schools.
Performance data by school sector are very difficult to obtain. However, it appears that private school students achieve better academic results, on average, than public school students, and are more likely to complete school to Year 12. This effect remains even after controlling for family background, including income

Fact 5: Private school students have better post-school outcomes.
Private school students are more likely to participate in post-school education and are less likely to be unemployed.

Fact 6: Parents choose private schools for many reasons, not just academic performance.
Surveys indicate that private school parents believe that these schools provide a better environment for their child to achieve their potential, and better discipline and school order

The report then goes into more detail about these findings. Some of them are particularly interesting, especially the evidence that public schools are just as costly as private schools. This fact remains hidden from the public, because they don't pay towards the cost of providing the education.

Table 1. Expenditure per student in public and private schools
Year .... Private ($) .... Public ($) ... Public adjusted* ($)
1990 ... 4080 .............. 4064 .............. 4463
1992 .......4371 .............. 4421 .............. 5037
1994 ...... 4972 .............. 4757 .............. 5428
1996 ..... 5632 .............. 5063 .............. 5772
1998 ...... 6728 .............. 5615 .............. 6457

The report elaborates on Fact 3 above, and shows how private schools are not at all elitist:
Surveys of parents of children in independent private schools have indicatedthat these families often take on a second job primarily to cover school fees and expenses. If this is the case, the figures presented here will be deceptive because a sizeable proportion of the households in the higher income bracket might be there only because a second income is required to meet school fees. Another misunderstanding behind the claim of elitism is that private schools select the brightest students, which explains their superior academic performance. In fact, very few private schools are academically selective. In the majority of cases, entry is comprehensive and the only criterion is the ability to pay the requisite fees.
And then .. the evidence that seems to show quite convincingly that private schools outperform public schools, gathered from NSW TER scores.

Table 3. Average Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) by school type, 1994 and 1996
Type of school............... Average TER 1994 1996

Public school .......................................... 44.25 45.10
Catholic systemic private school .............. 52.00 50.35
Catholic independent private schoo ......... 60.95 60.15
Other independent private school ........... 69.85 70.55

And as for school retention rates:
The information on school completion is unequivocal, however. Private schools have higher retention rates to Year 12. In private schools, retention to Year 12 is 84.2% and in public schools it is 66.4% (ABS 2000).
And its not that private schools use more resources. Student to teacher ratios are identical between public and private schools:
The superior academic performance of private schools is often attributed to
the selection of students with strong academic abilities. As noted earlier, this is rarely true. Another common explanation is that private schools achieve better results because they have more financial resources. However, data on expenditure per student in the different school sectors show that public schools spend more per student than do private schools.

Likewise, there is virtually no difference in pupil-teacher ratios between public and private schools—15.0 pupils per teacher and 14.9 pupils per teacher respectively (ABS 2000).
Then it explains how private school students go on to have a better future than public school students. Particularly revealing are the proportion of students at either end - those that go on to higher education, and those that are totally unemployed.

Table 4. Destination of school leavers by school attended in previous year, 1998, per cent of school leavers
Year 12 School Leaver .................... Year 10/11 School Leaver
Public(%) Private(%) ......................... Public(%) /Private (%)

Higher education 37.6 61.2 .............. 1.9 / 3.2
TAFE or equivalent 20.0 16.8 .............. 29.4 / 52.8
Other study 3.2 5.9 ............................... 4.4 / 9.1
Employed 25.7 12.6 .............................. 28.2 / 17.7
Unemployed 9.2 1.7 ..................... 23.3 / 14.1
Not in the labour force 4.3 1.8 .............. 12.8/ 3.1

And the conclusion summarizes the findings once again very eloquently, my emphasis in bold:
Conclusion: As it stands, the school system is inequitable and inefficient—public school parents do not get the quality of education they should expect, and private school parents are forced to double-pay for their children’s education, less a small subsidy.
To achieve fairness in funding, new thought is required. Possible alternatives to the current arrangements include education bursaries for all children or education tax rebates. By directing public funding of education through parents rather than through the education providers, parents can exercise greater autonomy and choice.

As for the quality of education, the evidence strongly suggests that private schools offer their students something that goes beyond financial resources and the influence of family background. What this might be is still a matter for discussion and an important area for future research. There are a number of points on which public schools and private schools might differ, including the quality and dedication of teaching staff, autonomy of the principal, and variations in curriculum and instruction.

One of the key factors in the superior performance of private schools seems to be the better discipline and order in private schools. It is clear that the order or ‘ethos’ common in private schools establishes an environment in which academic and other abilities are best fostered and most valued. It is acknowledged here that private schools have greater scope to determine their discipline policies. Yet it should also be recognised that it might be precisely this freedom and independence that is pivotal. Private schools also compete for students and therefore for funding. This compels private schools to keep standards high. Still another feature of private schools is the higher level of satisfaction and involvement of parents. Public schools, if they are to achieve parity with private schools, might look to emulate the characteristics of successful private schools.

Rather than regarding private schools’ success as being at the expense of public schools, it is time to think about how to ensure that all children gain the quality of education available to the children in private schools and the handful of exceptional public schools. Such evaluation is being hindered by the lack of available information about school performance. While the stalemate between the holders of this information and researchers is maintained, however, we can only demonstrate what is not most important to a child’s education with little chance of identifying what is.