Education’s Sophistication Problem: Why Sidwell Friends’ Tuition Doesn’t Justify Higher School Spending
One issue that plagues discussions about reforming American public education lies in the penchant among many traditionalists (and even some reformers) to engage overly simplistic thinking on key issues. This is especially true when it comes to debates over whether taxpayers should add to the $593 billion spent every year by the districts, schools, university schools of education and other entities that make up our traditional and nontraditional public school systems. One trick used by some traditionalists is to declare that more dollars should be spent on education because wealthy families are willing to pay as much as $34,268 a year (not including textbooks and other fees) to send their children to high-cost private schools such as Sidwell Friends, the inside-the-Beltway outfit attended by the daughter of former president Bill Clinton and the daughters of current White House occupant Barack Obama, and as much as $50,000 for boarding schools such as the famed Groton School in Massachusetts, whose alumni includes Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If affluent families think that teaching and curricula at those schools are worth those high levels of spending, then taxpayers should be willing to pay just as much for traditional public education. Or so goes the theory.
Traditionalists also tend to extend this thinking also extends into comparing the curricula and courses offered by Sidwell and other top-priced private schools to reform measures being put in place throughout the rest of American public education. From where they sit, the fact that students at those schools are able to take “seminars” and avoid standardized testing means that those students are getting a higher quality of education than traditional district counterparts, especially those in reform-minded districts and states.
Driving such thinking is the kind of didactic logic that can best be illustrated by the basic mathematical equation of 1+2=3. Given the anti-intellectualism inherent throughout American public education, the prevalence of such basic thinking isn’t shocking. But in the process, traditionalists (and even reformers) forget that in the real world, one plus two doesn’t necessarily equal three. This is because in most cases, we are dealing not with the intellectual equivalent of basic arithmetic, but with abstract and algebraic kind of thinking. And this is especially the case when it comes to school spending.
Concluding that tuition levels for high-cost private schools justify equally high levels of spending in the rest of American public education falls flat in the face of that thing called economics. More often than not, traditionalists fail to realize that in the private-sector market that includes the highest cost private schools, price (be it tuition or the cost of a book), is not an indicator of quality. What price does represent is value, which is set by the consumer demand for a product or service as well as by the supply of the product in the market place. In the case of a Marc Jacobs outfit, the price represents not the quality of materials or workmanship, but the demand among customers who want the goods, the ability of Jacobs’ manufacturer to meet the demand, and the competition among the traditional and online retailers from which those products are purchased. Same is true when it comes to high-cost private schools. The high tuition for Sidwell and Groton represents the high demand among parents (many of whom are looking to bolster their own esteem among different circles) for a school for which only one of each exists. Unless either Sidwell or Groton decides to launch a chain of schools, each will command tuition in line with their respective positions in the market.
The second is that the amount of money spent on education doesn’t equate to high quality. Traditional urban districts such as New York City spend as much as $24,779.52 or more per student a year – or the equivalent of tuition at some high-cost private schools – and yet no one would say those schools are of high quality. As Center for American Progress researcher Ulrich Boser noted last year in a study on school and district spending, there is little correlation between per-pupil spending levels and the success of districts in improving the achievement of children in their care. This shouldn’t be surprising. Given the reality that one of the culprits in the nation’s education crisis is that dollars are captured by practices and policies that are ineffective in improving student achievement – including the seniority- and degree-based pay scales, defined-benefit pensions, and near-lifetime employment that make up traditional teacher compensation – more dollars devoted to schools doesn’t necessarily equal better results. And when one considers the nation’s special ed ghettos, which consumed 40 percent of all new dollars devoted to American public education between 1996 and 2005, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s report on overhauling spending on those programs (and has condemned the futures of children, especially young men of all races), one can’t think simply spending more on education will yield much in the way of good for taxpayers, families, or children.
This latter fact points to a dirty secret of high-cost private schools. For all their pretensions, it is quite likely that the teaching and curricula provided to the kids in their care may be no better than in a traditional district, charter, parochial, or even lower-cost private school. In some cases, the quality may actually be worse. As entertainers and Forbes 400 billionaires have learned painfully when it comes to medical care (think the late Michael Jackson), there can be more incentive for elite private schools to sell families on “seminars” and other bromides that are as likely to be snake oil as effective in improving student achievement. The schools can get away with this because there is little high-quality data on elite private school performance – especially since, unlike private schools that accept vouchers, public charter schools, and traditional district operations – they aren’t subjected to state testing regimes; the lack of a Consumer Reports for American public education is especially problematic among high-cost private schools.
Another reason why high-cost private schools can get away with such pricing is because the paying families often have other concerns in mind, from opportunities for their kids rub shoulders with the children of politicians, corporate titans, and others, to the school’s reputation as a pipeline into Harvard and other Ivy League schools, and, in the case of President Obama, the ability to shelter his daughters from prying public eyes). This allows high-cost private schools to sell access and exclusivity as proxies for quality, even when the marketplace actually focuses on supply, demand, and scarcity. And yes, quality of teaching and curricula are issues these schools face. After all, high-cost private schools often have to draw from the same pool of teachers trained woefully by the nation’s ed schools as traditional district, charter, parochial, and low-cost private school counterparts. It is also why high-cost private schools can be as much bastions of traditionalist thinking as suburban districts.
This reality is one reason why traditionalists and reformers alike need to be more-thoughtful about addressing education finance. The focus shouldn’t just be on cutting costs or boosting spending, but on ditching the practices that can often lead to wasteful school spending. It also shows why as much as your editor supports school choice, doesn’t think it is a silver bullet for what ails American public education – and why school choice activists need to give pause whenever they tout the benefits of expanding the availability of vouchers and charters. Neither increased school spending nor expanded school choice will do much without overhauling how we recruit, train, evaluate, and pay teachers, improve curricula quality, and develop high-quality school data systems so families can make smart decisions.
Sure, Sidwell and Groton may be considered elite schools. But there is no empirical evidence that they actually are. And that fact, along with other realities, should stop folks in education from making mindless comparisons to the tuition charged by those schools and what American public education should spend on children.