Do Private Schools Do More with Less?

By Glenn Sacks

We often hear “Private schools do more with less.” Private schools spend less per student than public schools, yet their students have higher test scores and are more likely to attend college.

However, public schools face enormous disadvantages and drains on their resources that private schools do not.

For example, U.S. schools spend close to $60 billion annually to help the six million schoolchildren who have physical, emotional, or learning disabilities. Private schools weed these students out through entrance exams. 

Nor need private schools concern themselves with costly services for the millions of children who speak little or no English. Even the billions of dollars public schools spend on these much-needed services do not reflect the true cost: It is harder for these students to learn and harder for their teachers to teach.

Private schools are also able to build and make repairs considerably cheaper than public schools because they can hire the lowest bidder, whereas public schools must use union labor or pay prevailing wages. For smaller projects, private schools often have an organization of skilled parents who donate their expertise and labor. More importantly, there are always students whose parents are contractors, architects, computer experts, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, etc., who are happy to work in exchange for tuition credit or to help the school.

By contrast, public schools face tight restrictions on accepting donated labor or materials. Rather than hire union-wage janitors as public schools do, private schools often hire one or two janitors who supervise a corps of “work-study” students who clean the school in exchange for tuition credit.

Since most private schools are faith-based, these institutions have a corps of priests, nuns, pastors, or rabbis who provide inexpensive, skilled labor. Private schools also pay their teachers less, require more duties (yard duty, chaperone duty at sporting events or dances, etc.), and contribute dramatically less toward retirement benefits.

Whereas public schools have to pay subs several hundred dollars a day, at private schools teachers cover for absent teachers during their free periods, generally with little or no pay. The most I was ever paid for subbing classes was $5 an hour.

Some private school teachers accept these conditions because they view helping the school as part of their contribution to their religious institutions.

Private schools are accustomed to and expect these sacrifices. When I left my teaching position at a private high school to attend graduate school, I offered to continue to supervise the student newspaper for $10 an hour. 

The principal, a man I like, said, “This has to be a job you do because you love it. You can’t expect to make a lot of money.”

Private school parents are another advantage. It is human nature to pay better attention to that which we pay for, as opposed to that which we are given. Many times, I participated in parent conferences with a failing or misbehaving student and I’ve never seen a human being shrink so completely as when, during these conferences, a boy’s father would hear about his son’s laziness, misbehavior, etc., turn around and glare at him and say, “You mean I’m working 60 hours a week to pay for your school so you can do this?”

Private school parents tend to be more educated than public school parents and are more likely to speak English, enabling them to help students at home and work with teachers more effectively.

These households are also more likely to have a father in them and studies have shown that, even adjusted for income, the biggest determinant of whether a child will finish school, become involved in crime or drugs, and attend college is the presence (or lack) of a father in the home.

When the advantages are taken out of the comparison, who is really doing better, the public or the private school?

I have no idea. But let’s stop comparing apples and oranges and look objectively at the many difficulties and disadvantages public schools face.

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