Researching and writing The Case Against Education did much to dull my enthusiasm for private schooling. Part of the reason was pure theory: If most education is socially wasteful signaling, private spending doesn’t offset government inefficiency. It amplifies it.
Yet most of the reason was empirical. When I looked at curricula, what private school taught seemed very similar to what public schools taught. Furthermore, when researchers measured student learning - with proper corrections for pre-existing knowledge - most found weak evidence that private schooling was better.
None of this turned me against school choice. But since two big arguments in favor of this reform - different curricula and better learning - were weak, I almost stopped talking about it.
Until COVID came along and changed my mind. Here’s how.
Initially, all schools, public and private, stopped in-person education. Yet by the Fall of 2020, I started to notice a huge public-private disparity. All of the public schools in my area stayed closed… while all of the private schools I knew about reopened.
While this was only my superficial impression, I saw it confirmed over and over. Recently, I decided to hunt down the actual numbers. Straight from the National Center for Education Statistics:
That’s right, by February of 2021, just a month after all-time peak COVID deaths, almost 90% of private school were open - versus less than half of all public schools. Even this understates the disparity, because in some areas the government forcibly closed private schools.
What’s so great about remaining open? Most education researchers will point you to powerful evidence that Zoom school made test scores plummet. But since most adults retain almost no academic knowledge, I’m skeptical of the long-term harm.
Instead, I rest my case on the indubitable fact that in-person school provides invaluable daycare. Daycare that lets parents work, do chores, relax, and make more babies. Daycare equals convenience - and contrary to all political rhetoric, convenience is one of the most important things in the world.
Didn’t school closures stop the spread of COVID? Quite a few researchers are skeptical. But honestly, I’m skeptical of their skepticism. How can putting a generation of kids in close proximity fail to heavily spread a respiratory disease? Instead, I’d rather rest my case on the fact that even given extreme assumptions, the value of life-years saved by COVID prevention is small compared to the value of reduced quality of life-years caused by this prevention. Normal life plus COVID is better than lockdown life without COVID. And was from the start of this awful crusade.
Isn’t COVID over? For a rational person, yes. But COVID fanaticism endures, and probably will for years. School choice gives parents insurance against further official hypochondria… as well as protection from further expansion of woke brainwashing. I am well-aware that some of the worst such brainwashing happens in elite private schools, but since a lot of K-12 parents want something else, we can count on competitive schools to provide it.
School choice, please consider this a formal apology. I neglected you for years, but now I see how wrong I was. While my first choice remains educational austerity, “funding students rather than systems” is a slogan that once again has my enthusiastic support.
A few things that interest me here.
1. I feel like your original critique of School choice and Freddie DeBoer's are very similar. Public and private schools are too similar to expect too different outcomes, so who cares. Although I do think that this is an incentives problem, as the end of the day governments and colleges require the same tests of both, so how different could their curriculum or methods be? Mostly, private schools sell segregation, not racial, but class, this is popular because people inherently understand that learning is inversely proportionate to disruption. Disruption can be measured by the quality of parents. Schools have limited ability to deal with disruptive students, the best school stat to look at isn't test scores, its students living with both biological parents. Everything else is downstream of that.
2. Schools closing during covid, was much a function of parent preference. See (https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/1540317446934085632) The difference between public and private opening rates were in the wishes of the segregated parent groups. If all schools were private and reflected the choices of parents, the rates for the system as a whole may not have been too different from the public rates.
3. The reason we heard so much about school closures is elite parents often sent their kids to public schools in which they depended on real-estate prices to segregate their kids, but they were still a minority in districts like DC or NY. If we get school choice it's because these elite parents now understand that the Union's and other classes of parents do not share their preferences.
Yes, freedom to choose is important even if educational outcomes are about the same because you model autonomy and critical self responsibility both essential for engaging the world effectively.