By Jack Schneider
What is the relationship between private schools and the public good? Opinions tend to be shaped chiefly by philosophical commitment to either individual choice or communal welfare. Arguments rarely examine the tension between private schools and the public good, or address whether it can be resolved.
At the root of that tension is the issue of status competition. Families in the United States choose private schools for many reasons, religious affiliation historically first among them. But for many parents, enrolling their children in private school is primarily about giving them an edge over their peers. And that, it turns out, is incompatible with the public good. When status is the chief aim of schooling, as it so often is in private education, everyone ends up suffering – even the privileged.
Parents at all kinds of schools desire a broad and humanistic education for their children. But private school tuition is often justified by the idea that it will produce a return on investment. Private schools, then, face tremendous pressure to provide students with an advantage over others, particularly on the admissions rolls of prestigious colleges and universities. This, in turn, situates education as a very particular kind of commodity – what economists call a positional good. The value of a positional good is dictated not by any inherent worth, but rather by its relation to what is possessed by others. And this directly undermines the public good in two ways.
First, if the purpose of school is to give students an advantage over others, then the content of education is largely unimportant. When we conceive of education as a public good, by contrast, learning is the only thing that matters. Are young people learning to be citizens and functional members of the community? Do they have interesting and valuable skills that they can bring to bear on social and economic life? These are the questions that we must answer if educating students matters. But if education is merely a positional good, we need only ask: are their credentials perceived as more valuable than the credentials possessed by others? This approach undermines learning for all parties, including those enrolled at high-prestige schools.