Why Public Schools Fail

Mr. Payne is an independent political scientist who lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.

The 1980s have not been kind to supporters of public education in the United States. Early in the decade came evidence of the shortcomings of the public schools from the massive 60,000-student “High School and Beyond” survey. As sociologists James Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, and Sally Kilgore summarized this study of U.S. secondary education, “students in both Catholic and other private schools are shown to achieve at a higher level than students in public schools.” Their overall finding was that, controlling for social and demographic factors, students in private schools were one full year ahead of public school students.

Now, an exhaustive study by political scientists John Chubb and Terry Moe, published in the December 1988 American Political Science Review, documents the theory behind this difference. Private schools are better, say Chubb and Moe, because they are better organized to deliver quality education.

Private schools face a market test: if parents and students aren’t satisfied, they leave the school and stop paying tuition. This propels private schools to structure themselves so they can deliver a better product. When a public school starts deteriorating, on the other hand, the tax monies keep coming in. Hence inefficient arrangements persist.

What are the patterns of successful management that the private schools have adopted? From their survey of 500 schools, Chubb and Moe document how the private schools differ from the public ones. First, in private schools, the higher, distant authorities like boards and supervisors have less power. In the public schools, the school boards and supervisors try to micro-manage the schools—leaving principals and teachers frustrated. This contrast, by the way, holds up even for the Catholic schools: The higher ecclesiastical authorities meddle less in their schools than public school boards and supervisors do in theirs.

Another difference is that private schools have more flexibility in personnel policies. The procedures to fire someone are less complex and take less time. Thus private school managers can more easily discharge unsatisfactory personnel. Furthermore, private schools are more focused and coherent in their orientations. Different private schools may offer different approaches, but within each school, Chubb and Moe found more clarity on goals and less disagreement among the staff than prevail in the typical public school.

Another key difference is with the principals. As documented by Chubb and Moe, the private school principals have more teaching background than public school principals. They are less interested in administrative duties than their public school counterparts, and more interested in educational philosophy. Also, private school principals are much less likely to be seeking career advancement. The result of these differences is that private school principals are educational leaders. This is less the pattern in the public schools where principals, hemmed in by higher authorities, regulations, and unions, tend to be seen as bureaucratic managers.

With the principal given so much authority in private schools, what happens to morale and staff relations? To hear the unions tell it, without the government and union “protection” found in the public schools, private school teachers must lead a miserable life. Well, it isn’t so. Chubb and Moe found that the work context is more rewarding for a teacher in a private school: principal-teacher relations are better; teacher-teacher relations are more cordial and more supportive; teachers have more influence in every phase of the school, from choosing texts and deciding what to teach to establishing standards for discipline and homework. Private school teachers “feel more efficacious than public school teachers. Unlike their public counterparts, they do not believe their success is beyond their control, and they do not feel it is a waste of time to do their best.”

In monetary compensation, private teachers lag behind. This, say Chubb and Moe, is perfectly understandable: “Private school teachers are trading economic compensation and formal job security for superior working conditions, professional autonomy, and personal fulfillment. Public school teachers are doing precisely the opposite.”

What the unions and the politicians have overlooked is that job satisfaction for teachers depends on having the flexibility to accomplish the mission of education. The regulations and restraints that enmesh the public school are undermining everyone’s morale. So even though we are pouring more and more money into public schools, the quality goes down.

Of course, there are some good public schools with effective programs. What the Chubb and Moe study gives is the overall, nationwide pattern. And that picture clearly shows that the lesson of the market applies to education, too: Where consumers are free to choose, suppliers organize themselves to deliver a superior product.