Public School vs. Private School: a recipe for future inequities

A good education has long been the most effective path to self improvement and success in life, but for most Americans, gaining access to a high quality education may not be easy or even possible. The lucky few who are able to afford a private school education have a distinct advantage over the vast majority of Americans who must attend public school. By the time a student graduates from High School there is already a great divide between rich and poor; between the privileged top 10% and the underprivileged bottom 90%. Wealthy graduates from prestigious private schools have a much better chance of being accepted into expensive, top-rated colleges and universities than public school graduates, especially if the university is a parent’s Alma Mater. This relegates the less financially fortunate students to attend lower rated schools or simply to get vocational training and join the labor force. America’s underprivileged public school students are being used by the system to secure No Child Left Behind funding as their American Dreams slips away, while those wealthier students who attend private schools are being prepared by their elite education to have dynamic careers and live a life full of privilege and leadership.

There are some extreme differences between public and private education and the first of them is sheer size. The vast majority of America’s youth attend public schools and so the public school system is huge. According to the US Department of Education, there were 98,706 active public schools in all fifty states during the 2008/2009 school year with 67,148 being elementary and 24,348 being secondary. Grace Chen of Public School Review writes that 90% of all school age children in America attend public school. In 2008/2009 this figure represented 49.3 million students enrolled in public elementary and secondary school according to The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That’s nearly fifty million children being educated by the state. This feat requires an enormous bureaucracy of departments, administrators, and teachers, all working to move tens of millions of children through elementary and secondary school. The law prohibits children sixteen and under from dropping out. These tens of millions of kids are from diverse backgrounds, different economic categories, different racial and ethnic groups, and from families with various views on politics, religion, and who have different levels of education themselves. And the NCES projects the number of students in public schools will rise to 52.7 million by 2021. The number of Private Schools in the United States is a fraction of this, but I will come to those figures later.

Another big difference between public and private schools is how the two types of institutions are funded. Private schools, which include prep schools, boarding schools, and parochial schools, are funded through tuition, donations, and grants; whereas public schools are funded by the state and federal government. Judy Woodruff, a respected news analyst for PBS, reported in her piece “American Education in the 21st Century” that less than 10% of funding for K-12 education is supplied by the federal government and that the rest of the money that supports our nation’s more than fourteen thousand school districts comes from the sales tax, personal and corporate income tax, and much of it from local property taxes. The national Center for Education Statistics states that approximately 93% of local education expenditures are paid for out of the state budget. This puts a massive burden on each state to come up with the cash for tens of thousands of employees as well as books, supplies, and maintenance of the states’ many public school properties. Unfortunately, the flow of tax dollars is not always stable as we have witnessed over the past ten years. Taxes and therefore school budgets are subject to booms and busts in the economy.

Not long ago America found itself in a real estate boom and taxes were rolling in. However, since then our economy has all but collapsed, and public schools have been the target of many budget cuts. According to The Washington Post and The Associated Press, in the article “Gov. Jerry Brown orders $1B in midyear budget cuts…” posted on December 13th 2011, the California Governor announced that his state’s revenues had fallen again, this time by approx. 2.2 billion dollars. Due to this, Gov. Brown will lower the amount allotted to California’s midyear spending. This will immediately affect public schools, the elderly, and the disabled reports The Associated Press.

One bright light in public school funding is that in some neighborhoods property taxes are still trickling in, especially in areas that are more affluent. This allows for some schools to maintain a reasonable bare-bones budget even in this time of national financial crisis. However, this creates a Funding Gap between schools in more wealthy neighborhoods versus schools in poor or destitute areas. The less local property tax dollars coming in, the less money the neighborhood school has to spend. An Education Trust study in 2006 shows that poorer states receive less funding for education than richer states. Also, within all states the lower income areas receive less money than the wealthier areas, with the poorest schools in the least affluent districts being given the least amount of funding.

Education Activist, Jonathan Kozol, author of the 1992 book, Savage Inequities: Children in America’s Schools, discussed his findings with Judy Woodruff on, stating that in order for public schools from poor areas to receive the same funding as middle class schools, they must do everything they can to keep their white students from leaving, which means that inner city schools “have to be good.” According to Woodruff’s report, this inequity in funding means the difference between a school being well supplied, clean, and well maintained, or a school being dilapidated “with outdated equipment and unpaid bills” ( Woodruff describes how in 2005, Illinois was joined by fifteen other states for having funding gaps between low-poverty districts and high-poverty districts that actually grew worse between 1999 and 2005: these were Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And that was before the real estate bubble burst and the tax base collapsed. Considering recent budget cuts and the cuts to education that are being asked for by the Republican congress, one can only imagine what level the funding gaps between middle class public schools and destitute inner city schools will reach in the near future.

Another burden that has been foisted onto America’s public school system is President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate which requires nationwide Standardized Testing. The US Department of Education summary page for the No Child Left Behind act of 2001 is prefaced with a quote by President Bush, “These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.” No Child Left Behind was the largest act of federal spending for education since the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. According to the US Department of Education website, “The new law reflects a remarkable consensus… on how to improve the performance of America’s elementary and secondary schools while at the same time ensuring that no child is trapped in a failing school.”

NCLB attempts to accomplish it’s goals by connecting accountability and performance standards directly with funding. Each school receives funds according to how well its students do on standardized tests. If the student does not pass the test, then a certain amount of funding is held back from the school. If a high percentage of students pass the tests with flying colors, then the school is rewarded with extra funds. So again, the funding gap is in play. For those schools that boast higher academic achievement by the student body there is money enough to hire more teachers, buy new equipment, and go on field trips; at least in theory. But for those poorer schools that are already so challenged that they are unable to lift their test scores high enough to make the grade, they are held accountable and penalized with less money to hire teachers, buy equipment, or go on field trips. No Child Left Behind holds the students accountable too. If a student scores too low on the tests, he or she is held back: a public humiliation that can be ruinous to the child’s self esteem.

Standardized testing has another drawback: it pulls the focus from offering the student a well rounded and progressive education, and instead turns the students into a labor force of test-takers in whose hands the salaries of the teachers and administrators lie. With the standardized tests focusing mainly on math and reading there is little incentive to teach other subjects, especially when the school’s funding is at stake. Thus, even with the noble intentions behind NCLB, the results have been mixed at best and ruinous at worst. In an interview with Dr. Gerald N. Tirozz, executive director of the national Association of Secondary School Principals, which appeared in the film, Super Size Me, Dr. Tirozz spoke about how the requirements of standardized testing got in the way of teaching the students about things that they were not going to be tested on. “The more and more we put mandates on the school” says Dr. Tirozz, the more “they’ll be very myopic in their focus… Physical Education, nutrition, health; these are the things being cut out.” He suggests that soon we will become “a nation of fat readers.”

But health is not the only thing that has been cut out of the public school curriculum: art has suffered as well as music, language, history, and any sort of visionary approach to helping the students realize who they are inside and what their life could mean if they found a path that suits them, a goal that challenges them in a good way, and course of study that makes them happy. There is no time for that when the school’s funds depend on the child’s test scores. The big question is, does studying for these math and reading tests serve those subjects in the best way possible, and is the student learning enough of the other important subjects to be truly educated. If not, then the present generation of students is being cheated out of their potential futures as leaders and relegated to careers in the service industry, the military, the labor force, or prison.

One person who is committed to exploring the inequities in education between the classes is Jean Anyon, who wrote a definitive essay on education within different economic groups in the US, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” printed in Boston University Journal of Education. Anyon’s in-depth studies of five schools documents various approaches to education and how they differ drastically between working-class schools, middle-class schools, and the affluent professional schools serving the upper-class. Anyon reveals in her paper that in working-class schools the children are “prepared for a future of wage labor that is mechanical in routine, that little creativity or planning is involved” (87), and that it is “degrading.” She calls this a “conflict relationship with capital” (88). Instead of becoming docile the children become resistant which “prevents them from learning socially legitimated knowledge and skills in school and is therefore ultimately debilitating” (88).

Ms. Anyon goes on to describe how differently the middle-class schools approach educating their students by developing relationships to capital that prepares them to function well within a Bureaucracy. “Their school work is appropriate for white collar working class and middle class jobs in supportive institutions” (89) with a focus on paperwork, technical work, and sales work where “one is rewarded for knowing the answers to the questions one is asked,” or how and where to find the answers. It is not creative but is a huge step up from the poorer working class/labor model (89).

Ms. Anyon continues by exploring the affluent professional schools “where the children are developing a potential relationship to capital that is instrumental and expressive and involves substantial negotiation.” She describes how these more privileged children are given the opportunity to study languages, art, and science. They are encouraged to mold their “creative elaboration of ideas into concrete form” (89). In her words “their schooling is developing in these children, skills necessary to become society’s artists, intellectuals, legal, scientific, and technical experts and other professionals” (89).  So let’s take a deeper look now into these affluent institutions that prepare the students for a future in which they hold the reins of power: private schools.

Private schools are accredited through the state or region but they are funded primarily by tuition, donations, and grants, so they are not required to follow the same mandates as public schools, such as standardized tests. A private school has the freedom to develop the student’s self-reliance and creative abilities rather than use the student to secure funds through test scores. But private school is expensive. The BuckleySchool, a prestigious private, prep-school in Los Angeles that serves K-12 grades, lists on their website that the tuition for a sixth-grader is $31,226 per year plus $2,364 in fees. It is only slightly less for kindergarten. My own alma mater, FrancisW.ParkerSchool in Chicago, costs over $23,000 for Jr. Kindergarten and just over 30K for high school.

Even though private prep school offers an excellent education, is less crowded, better funded, and more visionary in its approach to helping the student reach success, it is simply out of reach of 90% of American families. Private schools have become the domain of the wealthy. Unfortunately those students who attend primary and secondary public schools are not nearly as well prepared for a top college as those who attended the more expensive private prep-schools. And even if they were, the top universities in America cost far more than the above mentioned prep schools. According to Forbes Magazine, April 13th, 2008 edition, YaleUniversity cost $50,350 per year. Even if a financially underprivileged student were to get accepted academically to Yale, the cost is so great that the student loans through graduation would be nearly a quarter of a million dollars, and that’s just for a bachelor’s degree. The only way to pay off that kind of money is to become a stock broker and go to Wall Street. Either that or spend another quarter million to become a doctor or a lawyer. But anything creative or inspired – forget about it. This is American elitism in action.

The number of enrollments in private schools illustrate American elitism well. The NCES states that enrollment in private schools (pre-K through 12th) dropped from 12% in 1996 to 10 % in 2010 going from 6.3 million students in 2002 to 5.5 million in 2010. That means that as our public school enrollment increases, our private school enrollment becomes even more elite. And the preparation for this elite group of future success stories begins the moment they are born. Jean Anyon addresses this issue in the concluding statements of “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” noting the issue of hereditary disparity:

“Differing curricular, pedagogocal, and pupil evaluation practices emphasize different cognative and behavioral skills in each social setting… These differences may not only contribute to the development  in the children in each social class… but would thereby help to reproduce this system of relations in society” (90).

So, like father like son: the system perpetuates itself: the wealthy Americans stay wealthy and get good educations and the poor Americans stay poor , struggling to get ahead.

Thus, Jean Anyon concludes that within each social class there is a hidden agenda in education to train them only for their present stations in life and thus continue the cycle of poverty or wealth according to one’s economic birthright. The path for many public school students is bleak after high school. However, the path for most private school students is to go right into one of the top private Universities. The top ten universities in the USA according to US News & World Report are Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University. Even if a poor student has better grades than a rich one, most of these top universities cost just as much as Yale, around a quarter of a million dollars for four years. Optimists might say that there are lots of other great schools out there, or what is wrong with going to a Community College or a state school. But lesser schools are rarely proven paths for poor kids to become the future leaders of industry and government in this country. According to US News & World Report, as of October 2010, most of the members of congress graduated from Harvard, Stanford, or Yale. And it would be no surprise if the same is true for the President, the Senators, the nation’s top judges, ambassadors, and in general most of the people that rule over us all and make the laws we must follow. Poor kids are shut out of the schools that lead to that high-level future, which seems to be reserved for the rich. This practice not only perpetuates a class system in America but it borders on a Caste System.

There are some, like Oliver Robinson, whose essay, “Interpretation of Anyon” admits that “her essay was an interesting look into how our society creates social class and aims to keep people in those classes” but that she needs to study more schools (4). However, it is clear that better schools produce more successful students, and that the best schools, including prep schools, produce an elite force of college bound powerhouses every 12th-grade graduation day. These select few students will soar past their underprivileged counterparts, filling up the best universities, leaving the poor and the underachievers struggling to make ends meet for the rest of their lives. We are at a crossroads as a nation and must beware of the enemy that faces us lest the majority of Americans become nothing more than modern day serfs. If not, American citizens may find themselves buying everything that’s advertised, owing the banks their future earnings like a sharecropper’s market, and serving under the yolk of an educated, wealthy few who run the government and own the corporations as if they were a ruling class.


Alberts, Hana R., Michael Noer, and David Ewalt, Special Report: America’s Best Colleges, Forbes Magazine online, August 13th, 2008, 06:00 PM EDT, Forbes.Com, 19 November 2011,, website

Anyon, Jean, Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work, Boston University Journal of Education, Volume 162, Number 1, Winter 1980, pages 67-92, Boston, Print

Associated Press, Washington Post: National, “Gov. Jerry Brown orders $1B in midyear budget cuts effect students, elderly, disabled,” December 13th 4:46 PM EST,, 13 December 2011,, website

BuckleySchool, Admissions,, 1 December 2011, , website

Chen, Grace, Public School Review, Public School vs. Private School, December 4, 2007,, 22 November 2011, , website

FrancisW.ParkerSchool, Admissions and Financial Aid,, 1 December 2011,, website

Institute of Education Sciences, NationalCenter for Education Statistics, The Condition of  Education, Private School Enrollment (indicator 4-2011), 28 November 2011,, website

Institute of Education Sciences, NationalCenter for Education Statistics, The Condition of  Education, Public School Enrollment (indicator 2-2011), 28 November 2011,, website

Kozol, Jonathan, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, Harper Perennial, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1992, Print

Morella, Michael, US News & World Report, Politics, Oct. 28 2010,, 30 November 2011,, website

Robinson, Oliver, essay: “Interpretation of Anyon”, Sept 23 2009, SCRIBD.COM, 29 November 2011,, website

Theokas, Christina, The Education Trust, The Funding Gap,, January 1 2006, ED Trust, 27 November 2011,, website

Tirozz, Dr. Gerald N., Exec. Director of the Nat’l Assoc. of Secondary School Principals, interview with Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me, Kathbur Pictures, 2004, video

US Department of Education, Why NCLB is important, Overview,, 2/10/2004, US Dept. of Education, 12 December 2011,, website

US News & World Report, University Directory, 2012 College Rankings list, 29 November 2011,, website

Woodruff, Judy, America’s Schools in the 21st Century, (PBS) Public Broadcasting System, How Do We Fund Our Schools, September 5th 2008,, 30 November 2011,, website



  1. This piece won the Konblauh Award for top essay through LACC in 2012.

  2. I’d like to thank Prof. E. McGarry for being an inspiration to me while writing this. She taught me how to properly cite sources and how to edit genrously (if you can believe it this was longer before she gave me some notes on it).

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