Teachers Unions Should Stop Complaining and Start Competing

Teachers Unions Should Stop Complaining and Start Competing
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

In recent weeks, much has been made of teachers unions’ efforts to prevent private schools from opening while many public schools remain shuttered. The unions’ goal is to ensure the competition doesn’t get (further) ahead. According to results from a study we recently completed about remote learning in spring 2020, teacher unions have reason to be concerned.

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During the first two weeks of August, we surveyed more than 1,700 parents in public, charter, and private schools across the country. We asked about what schooling at home looked like for their families, what educational resources schools offered, and asked for parents’ assessment of the experience. Grim real-time descriptions of schooling at home dominated the media in spring 2020. These often-sensationalized stories commonly reported parents found the experience chaotic, bordering on disaster. 

Our survey showed something different. We found most schools provided educational resources ranging from hardcopy packets and worksheets to live instruction provided online, often on laptops by schools. Teachers maintained frequent contact with families through various communications technologies. In short, the parents we surveyed were generally positive about remote learning, showing that they understood the difficult circumstances and that schools had accumulated some goodwill during the crisis.

But parents with children in private schools reported a more positive experience than those in traditional public schools.

We found that the remote learning schools provided varied significantly by school type. Eighty-nine percent of private school children received live, online instruction by their teachers. Only 56% of public school children did.

Not surprisingly, then, schools also had varying standards for students. Sixty-five percent of private school parents said their teachers graded student assignments and those grades played an important part in the overall assessment for the year. The same was true for only a third of public school children.

When asked to evaluate their schools’ responses to the pandemic, parents in private schools were consistently more positive. Private school parents believed the resources they received from their schools were more helpful, the communication was more effective, and the teachers were more adept at remote instruction.

Such findings illustrate the influence of markets on school performance. Throughout the results, private schools frequently appeared to be the most responsive, engaged, and innovative. In debates about school choice, much ink has been spilled arguing the merits of public versus private schools. Choice opponents frequently attribute superior private school outcomes to student differences. Our study, however, isn’t about student outcomes. We simply examined differences in the schools themselves. Private schools communicated more frequently with students, created real-time, online programs at greater rates, and set higher expectations.

Critics may respond by saying private schools were able to do so because of greater resources. Yet, most private schools in the United States are modest enterprises. The average student body is 150 students. Two-thirds are religious schools. The average tuition is $11,000 (including the small number of elite boarding schools), a figure that is slightly less than the average per pupil expenditure in public schools.

Private schools operate with less bureaucracy than public schools, but perhaps the most relevant difference is that private schools operate in a market and public schools largely do not. Because enrollment is the lifeblood of private schools, they worked during COVID-19 closures to retain students by operating more responsively and resourcefully than public schools, whose revenue streams, although reduced, continued throughout the COVID-19 closures.

When it comes to student outcomes, some of the disparities between private and public schools do reflect differences in student populations, but the results of our research suggest differences also reflect how the schools operate and reflect the influence of markets on those operations.

Teachers unions may hope closing private schools would knee-cap the competition, but spring 2020 shows that to be a false hope. On the same short notice as public schools, private schools built superior online learning programs. Now, with three more months to prepare, their programs—if forced to go fully online—would likely be even better. For the sake of their students, union members should have spent less time this summer complaining and more time competing.

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