Private schools are good for the public

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Edward Earwood

Public education and public schools are not one and the same. Public education is an educated public. It is a public commitment to education, the public support of education and the public benefits derived from education.
Public schools were created to achieve those goals; some do, others don’t. But any school that successfully pursues those aims and equips young people with the social, economic and civic tools they need for success is serving a primarily public purpose.
Private schools in South Carolina are delivering public education, and often doing so more effectively than the so-called public schools.
Private schools are affordable. In South Carolina, private schools charge a median tuition fee of $4,400 per student, per year, roughly one-third of the $12,200 per-pupil spending of the state’s public schools. Critics point to elite boarding schools with tuition and fees many times higher, but fail to mention such schools are outliers.
Only 10 private high schools in South Carolina charge tuition more than $10,000 a year, while 82 have tuition and fees at or below $5,000. Equally important is the fact that almost every private school in the state offers some form of needs-based tuition assistance opportunities.
Private schools are academically accountable. Across the state, private schools use tests that are more rigorous than those found in the public schools.
While experts have singled the PACT and PASS tests out for low standards and weak grading, private schools use nationally recognized assessment tools such as the Stanford, Iowa and Terra Nova. These tests allow private schools to compare their student achievement with both benchmarks and the abilities of students in other states.
Additionally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, private school students take more advanced courses in math, science and foreign language. These same students outscore their public counterparts on nationally normed achievement tests.
Private schools enjoy another layer of accountability not found in the public system. Parents are free to withdraw their children at any time they identify a more appropriate or effective classroom.
Private schools are accessible and diverse. The first racially integrated school in South Carolina was a private religious school. The first school designed to exclusively serve students with special needs was a private school. The first single-gender school geared toward serving students with long-term discipline problems was a private school.
Private schools in South Carolina are innovators in the fields of mixed-ability grouping and the Montessori method. Many have developed programs, such as intense literacy remediation, specifically to fill the gaps left by public school shortcomings.
There are now more than 300 private schools in South Carolina, located in 44 of the 46 counties. Twenty-nine counties have at least three different private school options.
Private schools are responsive. The private schools in South Carolina respond to feedback from parents and community members, rather than demonizing their critics as anti-public education. They don’t use public money to hire lobbyists. They are free to provide their most effective teachers with merit pay or incentives.
Private schools can hire retired college professors, career military officers and former diplomats to teach, even if they lack the so-called certification required by the traditional public schools. The private schools can, just as quickly, fire such teachers if they are not effective instructors.
Fifty-five thousand students in South Carolina attend private schools. They represent hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings to local and state taxpayers. Local governments collect more than $5,200 per year per child in taxes to fund public schools.
If just 1 percent of public school students transferred to private schools, there would be more than $36 million in money to educate the other 99 percent of public school students. That amount could pay the salaries of more than 700 teachers each year.
The number could be much higher. School choice, or the use of personal and corporate tax credits to help families afford the cost of private school tuition, offers both savings to public school districts, as well as greater access to private school classrooms.
Broader access, greater innovation, responsive classrooms and parental engagement are good things because they effectively serve the truly public aims of public education.

Edward Earwood is the executive director of the S.C. Association of Christian Schools.