Education and the Cult of Efficiency

At a conference I attended last month, two representatives from the host city — the superintendent and a former mayor — spoke on a panel about the importance of primary education and the mismatch between how much we portend to value it and how much we fund it.

After their talk, an audience member asked the question: “If public schools spend $12,000 per student, but private schools only cost $9,000 per student, why should we continue to invest in public education?”

The panelists’ response was good: they called attention to the different factors that go into calculating those numbers, the issues that can cause them to be skewed against public schools. That’s absolutely true, and I too am not willing to concede that — on an even playing field — public school education does cost more per pupil than private schooling.

But we’ve heard this argument before. Advocates for private schools have long tried to portray them as a societal good — a more customizable, efficient version of public schools (while charging an average of $10,000 per year for tuition). Public school advocates, caught in the trap of trying to prove their worth, end up having to fight the metrics and the process — and lose one of the most important aspects of the conversation.

The heart of privatization is cutting costs and shifting expenses away from the school — honestly, they wouldn’t be doing it right if it was costing more than a full-service, public system guaranteeing access for everyone.

Because that’s really what we’re talking about here. Since the 1800s, our country has largely (in principle, not always in practice) believed in the idea that education should be guaranteed for all. Investing more in private schools would be a significant — and dangerous — departure from that idea.

Why?

At the end of the day, the real efficiency of private schools is that they can pick and choose who to teach. Upper income families are the most likely to send their kids to private schools, by a large margin. 43% of private schools are characterized as “virtually all-white.” Some only offer applications in English.

That’s why their costs are so low — keep the high-income kids, who have access to paid tutors and counselors and home care aides, ignore the 6.5 million young people with learning disabilities, don’t worry about racial demographics, or LGBT youth. Don’t provide services that anyone of moderate- or low- income would rely on, like transportation or subsidized lunches.

Worse, some private schools have even fought to gain their students access to public school programs, like sports or performing arts, drawing resources from an unbegrudging system instead of paying for it themselves — only to turn around and accuse public schools of being inefficient.

It’s a cheap bid to sway public opinion, and I worry that we’ll fall for it.

Driven by Silicon Valley and the age of tech-worship, we cling desperately to ‘innovation’ and ‘efficiency’ as our saviors. Cabs cost too much? Launch an app that lowers the cost and makes it easy to call one. Getting groceries a pain? Build a company that shops for people and brings food to their doorstep. Hate waiting for packages? Streamline delivery and guarantee a quick turnaround.

For a nation looking to cut costs and casting about in search of things to ‘fix’, education is an prime target for this pseudo silver-bullet.

But like most bullets, it would do a lot more harm than good.

The real innovation of rideshare apps is to stop paying for their employees’ healthcare. The real efficiency of fast package delivery is that warehouse workers don’t get bathroom breaks or sick time.

It’s no different with private education (and not just because they underpay and overwork their staff and teachers, too). This mindset just hides the costs — or rather, it means that the wealthy get access to a good education, while everyone else is left to fight amongst themselves. That’s why I resist the comparison. Putting per pupil costs at public schools next to per pupil costs at private schools isn’t apples to apples.

Public education is available to everyone. Our public schools teach students regardless of their learning ability; provide every student with a way to get to school; make sure no student is trying to learn on an empty stomach — and that’s the difference.

Does the system need serious work? Absolutely. We need to fix the fact that our public schools are under — and disproportionately — funded. But that doesn’t justify throwing the idea of public education away entirely. We just finally acknowledged that about healthcare: if you let private industry pick and choose who to cover, they’re going to leave a huge swath of the country behind, and we shouldn’t be ok with that.

It’s far too easy to forget that there aren’t shortcuts for some things, and by feeding into the cult of efficiency, private school advocates could end up doing real harm to the millions of students who rely on public education.

Some things are worth paying extra for — worth doing right — and public education, guaranteed for all, is one of them.