Public schools are as good as private ones

It is natural to believe that public schools aren’t as good as private ones. “You get what you pay for” must mean something, otherwise parents would be stupid to spend $20,000, $30,000, or more each year on an “elite” private school.

But it doesn’t seem to be true.  Research is clear: on the whole, public school students do as well as, or better than, private school student of similar backgrounds.

It seems that myth of private-school superiority is based on marketing, targeted selection of children more likely to do well in school, and on the advantages that a typical kid with wealthy parents tends to have over a typical kid with parents who struggle financially, or even ones who live a modest life.  

Money buys good nutrition, enriched experiences, feelings of being in control, and status, as well as whatever tutoring or mental health supports a struggling student needs. Money and power may not buy happiness, but they sure can reduce stress and help you navigate your way around a thousand obstacles, both large and small.  

When you adjust for effects of family money and parent education, kids in public schools tend to do as well as or a little better at learning than those in private ones.



Except for the PISA studies, much of the Private vs Public school data come from American sources.  USA public schools rank poorly on international comparisons, much worse than Canadian schools which rank in the top tier.  This significant difference means that where American Private and Public schools are found to be roughly comparable, similar comparisons in Canada would likely find that on average, when adjusted for student  socio-demographic factors, Canadian Public schools outperform Private schools.


In fairness, private schools do provide some value to individuals. By clustering students of a single background, they reinforce group belonging and bonds that can benefit them in later life. Membership in an “old boys’ club” starts in having gone to the “right” school. It helps to have rich and powerful friends, to help you get a job, to help get you of a jam, to help you jump the queue. It’s not fair, and it makes it tough for someone without these advantages to get ahead. 

The flip side of this individual benefit is that society as a whole loses. 

When groups segregate, social divisions and political polarization increase, and economic mobility decreases.  Crime increases in us/them societies with a large gap between the few wealthy and the many poor.  A permanent economic underclass stunts economic growth. Reinforcing multi-generational advantages reduces the pool of talented people, stifling innovation.  Democracy, with its core assumptions of equality and opportunity, is undermined.

This principle is called “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  When every person rationally pursues her/his individual benefit, the conditions that support that individual benefit can collapse, leaving everyone much much worse off than before.