Government vs Private Schools: Better by What Standard?

by | Jan 23, 2023

It is time to enable parents to have the freedom to choose the school for their children through school choice.

This past week, the following was sent to all Texas legislators and all daily newspapers in Texas.

Defenders of government schools claim that those schools do a better job of educating students than private schools. And the advocates for school choice claim that private schools do a better job. Both sides can cite numerous studies to support their position. If we are going to claim that either private or government schools are better, we must first answer a crucial question: Better by what standard?

The needs, desires, and interests of students are not monolithic. These vary widely, and what is better for one student may not be better for another. The standard of what is better will vary from student to student. The standard will be unique to each individual.

In the context of the school choice debate, it doesn’t matter whether private or government schools do a better job. The purpose of school choice is to enable parents to decide which school is best for their children. For some, a private school may be better. For others, a government school may suffice. However, this is a decision that parents, not politicians and bureaucrats, should be making.

Unfortunately, much of the debate over school choice focuses on a group. For example, the studies cited by both sides of the debate always focus on the test scores of some group, such as fourth graders. Whether those scores are exemplary or abysmal, they tell us nothing about the individuals comprising that group.

If the focus is on the group, then the needs, desires, and interests of individuals are ignored. This collectivist notion gives rise to the contradictory claims made by the two sides of the school choice debate. It focuses on what is best for one group or another, rather than what is best for individuals.

For example, exemplary scores for a group do not mean that every member of that group is doing well. And if the scores for a group are abysmal, it doesn’t mean that every student is struggling. When we look at the group rather than individuals, we miss what is happening to actual human beings.

The arguments put forth by school choice opponents imply that they know what is best for all Texas students. They believe that they, politicians, and education bureaucrats are the ones who should decide what ideas and values young Texans should be taught. “Give me a child till he is seven years old, and I will show you the man,” St. Ignatius Loyola stated. His words are true. The ideas and values that individuals learn at a young age often shape the rest of their lives. Parents understand this, and they want more control over what their children are being taught.

If we truly want what is best for every individual student, then we must begin by adopting the proper standard. We must adopt a standard that applies to every individual, no matter her age, family income, race, ethnicity, or any other characteristic.

The only standard that applies to all individuals is the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness and to act according to one’s own judgment in that pursuit, so long as one respects the freedom of others to do the same. We have the freedom to choose our barber, mechanic, grocer, and accountant. And we make those choices based on what we believe to be better. We consider our needs, desires, and interests when we make such choices. We recognize and accept the fact that others will choose a different barber, mechanic, grocer, and accountant. It is time that we also accept the fact that others may choose something other than government schools. It is time to enable parents to have the freedom to choose the school for their children through school choice.

Parents know their children better than anyone else. Parents, along with their children, are the ones who should decide which school is better.

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Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

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