Private or Public Education?

Argentine parents are increasingly choosing private schools over public ones due to safety, discipline and labor issues, the author points out. (Photo: Argentina's Education Ministry)  

Argentine parents increasingly prefer private schools. But are they better than public schools?


According to a recent report by the Institute for Argentinean Social Development (IDSA), 8 out of 10 new students in Argentina are opting for private education. Between 2004 and 2010, the amount of students attending public schools increased by 79,000, while those attending private schools increased by 373,000. Of all of the students entering the educational system over that period, 83 percent chose private education. Given the evidence since 2004, it looks like Argentinean families prefer private schooling over public education.

What could be the reason for this? The most likely reason seems like it would be related to educational quality, but in Argentina there are no publically accessible official statistics that measure the evolution of this indicator, even though national tests take place every year. This lack of information is why quality measured in terms of better curricular content and learning outcomes doesn’t seem to be the reason for this preference for private education. Analysts point, rather, to another, wider set of reasons, such as the greater stability of private schools – where, unlike many public schools, strikes, security issues or lack of discipline are minimal or nonexistent.

As the former Minister of Education of Argentina Andrés Delich said in a recent interview in the newspaper Clarín, “private schools seem to guarantee that classes are taught every day, which doesn’t always happen in public schools, a major factor, especially, for those families where both parents have to work.” Moreover, Delich argues, “there’s an idea among the Argentinean population that in private schools kids are actually safer.”

But what is happening in other countries in Latin America? According to a publication edited by the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), private schools comprise a relatively important portion of the Latin American educational systems. Compared to OECD countries, in which the average of students attending state schools reaches 86 percent, in Latin American countries that participate in the PISA assessment, this number is only 77 percent.

At the same time, this averaged number hides considerable differences among countries in the region. For example, while in Chile less than 50 percent of students are enrolled in public schools, in countries such as Bolivia, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Mexico or Brazil that number exceeds 90 percent – that is, eight to nine out of every ten kids attend public schools. This data explains why, according to this same study, the average private expenditure on education in OECD countries represents less than 10 percent of the total, while in the six Latin American countries participating in the PISA assessments it represents over 20 percent of the total. (In Chile, it surpasses 30 percent of the total.)

Only in higher education does private enrollment surpasses that of public universities, with some 52 percent of Latin American students attending private institutions.

In the case of Argentina, IDESA researchers have concluded that it would be a mistake to see the growing preference for private schools as an ideological statement, or a rejection of public education. In fact, most of the parents that are now enrolling their children in private schools have themselves been students in the public system. While these parents do not necessarily reject public schooling, they are sick of children missing classes, the system’s disorganization, and the ongoing public strikes that bring learning to a halt.

It can also be attributed to a phenomenon, present across Latin America, in which the expansion of the middle class that took place over the last decade has allowed more families to afford the enrollment costs of private education. And while the difference in quality is not completely clear, private schools are perceived as better organized, more innovative, and capable of building relationships that could be important for children joining the workforce in the future. Unfortunately, these are not much more than perceptions, however influential they are when it comes time to choose a school.

A similar dilemma comes up in the school selection in the United States, as Mike Petrilli intriguingly explored in his latest book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, published in October 2012 by the Fordham Foundation. The author describes a more difficult choice, since the alternatives in the US are broader, including traditional state schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and blended learning. Petrilli’s analysis is current and particularly interesting given his amusing narration of how he is dealing with the issue himself, having two kids in school and serving as Vice President of the Fordham Foundation, one of America’s most respected think tanks specializing in education policy.

In contrast with the trend in Latin America, public schools in the US seem to be trending upwards again. As Petrilli points out, “in the middle of the last decade, in urban communities across America, middle-class and upper-middle class parents started sending their children to public schools again.” The author seems to suggest that the reasons behind this choice are not always related to school quality as such, but rather turn on practical motivations common to most parents, such as proximity and diversity of the student body – this last point being increasingly important given the demographic changes that children will be living through in the course of the upcoming decades.

Finally, again in contrast with Latin America, the economic crisis in the US and persistently high unemployment have reduced the middle class’s purchasing power and caused many parents to take their children out of private schools. While it appears that public and private education are headed in different directions in different countries, it seems increasingly clear that the reasons are not always related to educational quality, but rather to the broader economic and political contexts in which those educational systems find themselves.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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