An article by “Dr Adam Swift”:http://www.politics.ox.ac.uk/about/stafflist.asp?action=show&person=92 in the “Telegraph”:http://www.dailytelegraph.co.uk/education/main.jhtml?xml=/education/2003/11/12/tefswift12.xml&sSheet=/education/2003/11/12/ixtetop.html&secureRefresh=true&_requestid=181438 (registration required) suggesting private schooling in the UK should be banned has inspired an interesting debate on the always-interesting “Crooked Timber”:http://www.crookedtimber.org/ weblog. As so often is the case it seems clear to me that the left and right wings of the case arguing in the comments to the original posting will never agree because they have fundamentally different ethical premises. For me, Spock (and most of the left-wing commentators) ‘the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one’. For the right wingers, parents have an absolute right to do what they can to better the lives of their children, whatever the harmful effects might be for society at large.
One of the posters’ arguments was interesting: ‘I wish the public schools were like my childrens private school, but society would then, I imagine, need to be prepared to do many things, among which is to spend $15,000 per student’ – actually, in the UK at least, many public schools are better resourced than private ones. It’s just that these additional resources on their own are not sufficient to close the gap formed because of the different backgrounds of the pupils.
Of course without private schools parents could still ‘conspire’ to give their kids advantages by grouping together in neighborhoods around better state schools – to which there is an obvious (if undoubtedly controversial) answer – busing. Even without busing in many inner city neighborhoods in the UK the rich live next to the poor (I know that’s the case where I live) so unless the rich fled their former neighborhoods altogether there would still be some mixing. And aside from the educational benefits previously cited, I feel it is also important to note that kids schooled in private schools may grow up without getting to know people who don’t come from their own narrow background.
It’s interesting to notice that nobody in the debate on the site to date has brought up the issue of religious education – I don’t know whether Dr Swift’s book, How not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed, tackles this issue.
I imagine if most private schools were banned but religious ones remained that the phenomenon of people “passing” as Anglican to get into better schools would only get worse. I don’t think you could or should really consider banning religious schools for those who want them (except perhaps where the religious curriculum would hinder children’s educational development – creationist schooling for example).
This reminds me of Prof Layard’s arguments about happiness (I “posted about these”:http://blog.org/archives/000702.html back in March). He suggests that since so much of our happiness (eg related to income) is measured relative to others, it actually makes sense to limit everyone’s ability to (for example) earn (or as I would argue in this case to buy extra education for your children). He argues that people harder than they really want or need to because they are worried that if they don’t others will make them relatively worse off.
But you don’t need to argue that nobody should have the benefit of additional private schooling – after all middle class parents will still be more able and inclined to push their kids to do their homework. The main benefit of banning private schooling (as pointed out by would be that it would force the most motivated parents and students back into the public system and that would raise its standards. Middle class parents could still ‘top that up’ through extra coaching.
Obdisclosure: I am a product of the private school system both in the UK and (mainly) Canada. I and my wife have no children but if we did and could afford it we would probably send our kids to a private school if the local public school was not good. I know she would insist on it and precisely because private schooling has not been banned I would have a hard time penalising my own child in order to benefit his or her classmates at a failing public school.