Chasm in Little Petra, Jordan
Photo by demerzel21 on Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line The Chasm Spanning Public and Private School COVID-19 Responses

The contrasting response from K-12 public schools and private schools regarding starting in-person classes for the 2020-2021 school year has exposed the vastly different systems under which each operates. The Democratic party heavily backs public education teacher unions, and politics are clearly at play, especially with a highly momentous Presidential election less than two months away. However, the distinct differences between the public and private approaches are more than politically motivated tactics. They are also philosophical and financial in nature. These educational institutions’ contrasting responses have brought to clear focus their dissimilarities in grander measure than previously witnessed.

Systemic Differences

The size of the respective systems plays a significant role, both positively and negatively. As a $700 billion annual industry, the U.S. K-12 public education system is an enormous entity and a powerful and dominant force. Yet it is often confuddled by its own bureaucratic processes. On the other hand, private schools are generally standalone organizations that function independently and are connected loosely by associations they willingly join for accreditation purposes. Their small size and independent status allow for nimble responsiveness. Yet they are much more financially fragile and politically weaker than their public counterparts.

Philosophically, public schools view educators as experts of both the students and the learning alike. Conversely, private education more often views parents as the expert of their students who enlist the school to provide learning expertise to assist them in their child’s education. In essence, responsibility for the student’s learning and development is relinquished to a larger degree to the public school.

Financially, the government-funded public school system historically has not been contingent upon parental satisfaction. School choice has begun to open that door slowly, but only in small doses in certain states through education savings accounts, tax credits, vouchers, charter and choice school options, and high stakes lottery systems. Alternatively, private schools must be highly responsive to parental approval of all aspects of their child’s education — campus design, daily and yearly schedules, curriculum, dress code, lunch program, co-curricular offerings, athletics, arts programs, and more.

Customer Satisfaction

The bottom line — private school parents see themselves as paying customers, and the school must earn and keep their business. In turn, these schools are not only cognizant but responsive, adaptive, and eagerly focused on customer service and parental satisfaction. If private schools are not, they will not stay in business. Marketing, admissions, and development teams work strategically and in sync to recruit, enroll, and retain students while also raising funds to cover operational and capital expenses exceeding tuition revenue. Without receiving government funding, private schools must execute a sound business plan to ensure their future existence. Excellence must be preeminent in academics, arts, and athletics, in a safe and nurturing community environment.

On the other hand, public schools are funded exclusively through a combination of federal, state, and local tax dollars — funds that they receive regardless of parental satisfaction. Furthermore, parents have little option for alternatives in the states and districts where the above-mentioned school choice avenues are not present unless a parent or grandparent can stay at home and provide homeschool learning, or family finances allow for high dollar private school tuition. For the vast majority of Americans, private education for their children is not feasible. Public school excellence (or a lack thereof) in academics, arts, and athletics has little to no impact on their enrollment numbers and funding. The same is true concerning the public school community and learning environment — whether spectacular, mediocre, or appalling, the implications for the school or district are minimal, and teacher job security is not on the line. In short, there is no urgency for improvement since survival is not at stake.

A Monopoly Exposed

In the pre-COVID-19 era, public school parents, especially those without school choice options, simply accepted the school and its system without question. Those demanding improvements hold little leverage since the school and its district are not entirely financially dependent upon students staying enrolled. For example, charter school laws in many states provide financial protection for public schools against declining enrollment. Often referred to as double funding, these public school districts continue to receive state funding for students who have withdrawn to attend a charter school. The state also funds these students a second time at the charter school they, in fact, attend. In what other industry can an organization lose customers to the competition and enjoy the same revenue?

In essence, like other government-run entities, public education is monopolistic and relatively immune from free market pressures. However, COVID-19 has shaken the change-adverse education landscape to a greater degree than any other K-12 education impacting factor or initiative over the past 100 years. Some would go as far as to argue that the impact has been more significant than the sum total of all past factors and initiatives. 

The prevailing public education employee protests to schools’ reopening for on-campus learning is leading to a shift in mindset for public school parents. Parents are starting to speak up and make demands of schools and districts in ways and to degrees that are unprecedented but long overdue. In short, they are beginning to see themselves, like private school parents, as customers who are not receiving what they paid for through tax dollars. Consequently, a stream of lawsuits aimed at public school districts is underway, with many more on the horizon.

Implications of Closed Schools

Another factor to consider is when school campuses are closed, parents are in a severe bind. This is true especially for those without one stay-at-home parent, those without the flexibility of a job that allows for remote work, or those unable to assist their student with their schoolwork (everyday reality for non-native English-speaking families). Additionally, parents with the flexibility to work from home are experiencing tremendous difficulty balancing their roles as both a supervisory learning coach for their at-home students and a full-time remote employee.

This negative impact is not just on individual parents — the economy as a whole suffers. Unemployment will grow; government services will exceed the needed funding to a greater degree, and students in a larger percentage will not be prepared to the extent necessary to become an employable contributor to our information age society.

The creative solution of organizing a neighborhood learning pod with a hired teacher or tutor is only feasible for a slim percentage of families, often only for those who already have multiple school choice options — private school, tutors, etc., at their disposal. What about the remaining population of students? The implications are substantial. With the digital divide, wherein lower-income families do not have the needed technology, including internet access for remote learning, a growing achievement gap is further exacerbated.

School Choice

Private schools are scrambling to meet parents’ demand for quality education, even in the COVID environment. An example was the summer initiative by private school leaders to survey parents on how they can best serve their family and what they desired for fall learning – on-campus, online, or a combination of the two (most commonly termed hybrid). Private schools purchased and installed everything from air cleaning units, plexiglass, face shields, masks, hallway traffic flow markers, and more. Class sizes were reduced. Daily lunch, recess, and pass time in hallways were restructured, based on a detailed plan which grouped students in small units designed to not intermix with other groups.

Almost all private schools are preparing to be open fully. Many are also allowing students to learn from their home for the foreseeable future if they opt, with classroom sessions recorded, live-streamed, or recreated for at-home learners. Other private schools created a full standalone virtual academy enrollment option for those wanting to remain a part of the school community but could not attend in-person schooling in a COVID environment. Ultimately, what has occurred are the parents who already experience the benefits of school choice for their students now have further expanded school choice options because of their private school’s responsive and customer service focus.

Public education in some districts has opted to offer a choice between hybrid or entirely online. However, the hybrid option consists of only one, two, or three days a week on campus for most of these schools and will not be implemented until later. For many, no firm commitment date for the hybrid option nor when returning to full-time on-campus learning would resume was provided. Consequently, parents are left helpless, unable to plan, and at the mercy of the teacher unions’ narrative that school campuses are unsafe.

Teacher paychecks continue, whereas the paycheck of these families, especially low-income families, are now spent on childcare, education support, or forfeited altogether. They are forced to supervise their homebound students at the expense of working to cover the family’s basic living needs.

Imagine Free Market Education

What would happen if K-12 education became a free market with competition as the driver? Imagine taxpayer funding provided to families in the form of vouchers, allowing them to select the school of their choice for their student. The result could be revolutionary. Rather than have parents at the mercy of unresponsive public school systems, driven by teacher unions who adamantly withhold teachers from returning to the classrooms, we would have universal access to schools. The created market competition would demand schools are customer-focused, provide quality education, and produce robust student learning results. Imagine the transforming effect on the trajectory of our nation’s future.

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, The Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, National Review, The American Spectator, Daily Caller, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?