Public vs. private vs. charter schools in the millennial age
Only six years ago, 87 percent of the United States student population aged five to 17 attended public school. And in the six years since that 2007 measurement, that percentage has dropped each year as students move to private or charter schools, even homeschooling. Many parents are seeking non-public education options for their children at a younger age before transferring into public schools — if at all.
Junior Shae Varmette, who went to a private Catholic elementary school in upstate New York and switched to public in fifth grade, said her private school education was noticeably better than that of public education, largely because of the attentiveness of the teachers.
“I had a lot of trouble in math,” Varmette said. “I distinctly remember that I was put into a special group, and [teachers] paid really close attention.” She said that if a student had a problem, the teachers at her elementary school were very helpful and did a better job of explaining the concept than at the public school.
Homeschooling also offers highly individualized attention, and unlike private or public schools, educators have great flexibility in their curriculum in terms of content and timing. Petty Officer Eric Brown said he and his older sister were homeschooled for elementary school in Nevada, and his mother developed an understanding-based pacing for the curriculum.
“It didn’t matter if there were another dozen worksheets dealing with the topic,” Brown said. “Once we ‘got it,’ we moved on.” He also said that even though his sister was a year and a half older, they had the same lessons at the same time, so he came out ahead academically when he got to public school.
While the availability of these different learning environments is designed to improve the education of the children by offering flexibility in style, school officials often question whether the competition between schools actually helps improve the educational problems.
For example, charter school competition in populated areas such as Detroit has decimated the city’s public school system. In his August 2011 article, Michigan State University professor David Arsen pointed out that charter schools in many areas are started when parents are dissatisfied with the public system. Therefore, as more kids leave the public schools to go to charter schools, it leaves public schools in an even worse state.
Education professor Katy Crawford-Garrett said that school competition was evident when she taught in Washington, D.C. Middle and upper-middle class families would consider the cost of private school education when deciding whether to live outside the city or in it.
“People have made arguments that the public schools are never going to get better if the people who have that kind of capital don’t invest in them,” Crawford-Garrett said. She said that if the public schools are seen as only for poor or at-risk students, they won’t improve without that push.
Another argument she mentioned was the idea that charter schools take funding and good students from traditional public schools, but her experiences showed otherwise. At the charter school where she taught, there was a wide range of academic ability and many students were there because they had needs the public school couldn’t meet, including the need for a different social environment.
Each system has its merits, and standardized testing can’t accurately indicate the full success of a school or schooling system, but studies from the Department of Education show a significant difference in the test scores of public, private, and charter students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is run by the DOE, has shown that private schools have consistently held higher test scores than public schools, and public schools have similarly been consistently higher than charter schools. In 2011, for example, the average charter school fourth grader scored 237 out of 500 in mathematics, compared to 240 in public school students and an average of 246 in religious private school students.
Despite the decision that public schooling faces, there are upsides to it. Varmette said she switched because the public school offered more social opportunities and options for music and sports, and Brown said it would be beneficial for students to experience the structure and diversity of public schooling at some point in their careers.
A lot of the stigma against public schools is due to the horror stories of bureaucracy or overall bad schools, and Crawford-Garrett said that public schools need to be protected. “Public schools are more and more vilified now,” she said. “There are not enough examples out there of public schools doing good work.”
Amanda Hutchinson is a sophomore journalism major who has decided to homeschool her cats. Email her at a hutchi2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.