There's a Simple Solution to the Public Schools Crisis

The ongoing (but maybe soon to end?) teachers' strike in Chicago is being viewed by many as an early skirmish in a coming war over the crisis in public education—stagnant or declining graduation rates, substandard educations, dilapidated schools, angry teachers, underserved students. There is one simple step that would go a long way toward resolving many of those issues: Make all schools public schools.

It's an oft-noted irony of the confrontation in Chicago that Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his children to the private, $20,000-a-year University of Chicago Lab School, which means his family doesn't really have much of a personal stake in what happens to the school system he is trying to reform. This is pretty routine behavior for rich people in Chicago, and there's a pretty good reason for it: Chicago's public schools are terrible. If you care about your children's education, and can afford to buy your way out of public schools, as Emanuel can, it's perfectly reasonable to do so. Barack and Michelle Obama made a similar decision, opting to purchase a quality education for their daughters at Sidwell Friends rather than send them to one of Washington, D.C.'s, deeply troubled public schools.

A lot of Chicago parents with the resources to do so have followed Emanuel's lead: 17% of schoolchildren in Chicago attend private schools, and so don't have to trouble themselves with whether or not their local public school has air conditioning, or a library (160 do not), or classes with 45 students. Those kids that don't attend private schools tend overwhelmingly to be from families with less political power and resources than Emanuel's: 87% of them are from low-income families, and 86% are black or hispanic.

Nationwide, where 10% of the nation's students—and 16% of the white ones from families making more than $75,000 per year—attend private schools, the stratification is similar. White and asian students enroll in private schools at twice the rate of black and hispanic ones, according to Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. Nearly two thirds of private-school students are from wealthy families. In the nation's 40 largest school districts, one in three white students attends private school (the number is one in ten for black students).

So you can see why there's a problem. Here's the solution: Make Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama's children go to public schools. From a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America's wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake. Wealthy people tend to lobby effectively for their interests, and if their interests were to include adequate public funding for the schools their children attend, and libraries, and air-conditioning, those goals could likely be achieved without having to resort to unpleasant things like teachers' strikes.

This would of course be a radical and highly disruptive step. It would involve forcibly transferring ownership of all existing private schools to the school district in which they reside, and readjusting local tax schemes to capture the tuition parents currently pay (the nationwide average is $8,549 per year, which means a total of $47 billion is spent each year on opting out of the public education system). Then access to the newly "nationalized" schools would have to be distributed on some fair basis to local students, with the wealthy kids who don't make the cut into their old schools being sent to the regular ones, without air conditioning or libraries. And resources would have to be redistributed within the school districts so that the resources formerly lavished on private schools could be spent shoring up the failing public ones.

This is not an original idea. Billionaire wise hobbit Warren Buffet once told school reformer Michelle Rhee that the easiest way to fix schools was to "make private schools illegal and assign every child to a public school by random lottery." In England, the notion of banning private education—while highly unlikely—has long been a part of the political debate entertained by major-party candidates.

And while it would have the practical effect of forcing school boards and municipalities to be accountable to their privileged elite as well as their poor families, there's also a moral argument for banning private education. Put simply: Equality of opportunity demands that children should not be penalized—or advantaged—by the accident of their birth. Educational benefits, which are the most crucial resource when it comes to determining the life-outcomes for children of all backgrounds, shouldn't be distributed based on how rich your parents are. They should be distributed equally. Even if we stipulate that radical inequality is OK for adults—once you are out in the world, you rise or fall by the work of your own hands—when it comes to children, it's perverse to dole out educations based on arbitrary circumstances completely beyond their control.

And that's what private education does: It allows parents to purchase better life-prospects for their kids simply because they can afford it. (The real estate market and the property-tax-based funding model for public schools do the same thing—being able to afford a home in a good school district, which is then funded by taxes levied on that valuable home, is structurally very similar to paying tuition for a private school.) Of course, the act of simply raising children in a wealthy home is a form of purchasing them better life-prospects than poorer children. And attempting to equalize that dynamic would be impossible without unacceptable governmental intrusions into the child-parent relationship.

But educational benefits are something that we as a nation have long held should be afforded to all children, irrespective of their backgrounds. And we've further held that withholding access to those benefits based on race or ethnicity—in other words, on morally arbitrary circumstances over which the children have no control—is wrong. Our current system of private and public education effectively distributes the best educations to those who were born into the right families, like Rahm Emanuel's. He shouldn't be able to buy his kids a better shot at life than his constituents can afford.

[Image via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock]