The Public School vs Private School Debate

Tyler Cowen brings up one of my favorite subjects: the dollar value (as opposed to the dollar cost) of private schooling. And I’m happy he comes down on my side of a question which will never be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction: public or private?

I ended up telling my mother I was happy to remain in the public school. If nothing else I feared the commuting costs and not having friends’ homes be nearby. Furthermore at public school I met Randall Kroszner and Daniel Klein, among other notables. Natasha and I faced this choice again with Yana and she ended up in public high school. I can’t really cite economics here but if your public school is halfway decent that is the side I come down on.

Insofar as there’s been much empirical research on this, it generally shows that, after adjusting for socio-economic status, there’s very little difference in educational outcomes between public schools and private schools. Given that fact, it makes sense to take the money that would otherwise be spent on private schools, and to spend it instead on other forms of education: books, travel, opera, you name it.

One of Cowen’s commenters hilariously then adds on the "time cost of parental involvement," as though these are the kind of things most middle-class parents wouldn’t love to do.

So while Tim Harford might concentrate on the marginal benefits of sending your kids to a private school – peer effects, mainly, and probably-better teachers – he doesn’t spend nearly as much time considering the marginal costs, which are huge. Stop to ask yourself how much pre-tax income you would need to send two children to private school through age 18, and then ask yourself how much happier you would be if you didn’t need to earn all that money, or if you could spend that money on other things instead.

Yes, teachers are important, but parents are even more important. And middle-class parents of kids in public schools have, at the margin, more time and more money to spend on their kids. Which, I suspect, more than makes up for any pedagogic weaknesses at the public school they send their children to.

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