What if we ban private schools?

In the United States, many of the wealthiest students attend private schools. What if we simply passed a law that made it illegal for such schools to exist on the grounds of promoting education equity, as many people have suggested?


The first thing that would happen is that courts would declare the law unconstitutional. We know this would happen, because it already happened. In 1922 the state of Oregon passed the Oregon Compulsory Education Act. The law’s main target was Catholic schools, but it impacted all private academies. The law made it so that one could not fulfill their compulsory education requirement through private school attendance. Unless you had some other exemption (e.g. homeschooling) you had to attend your local public school.

The Ku Klux Klan were really pushing this law in Oregon. At the time they were huge defenders of public education, and this was all part of a national panic about immigration. (The Immigration Act of 1924 was a few years away.) Cited in David Tyack’s piece, here is the statement put forth by the Oregon Klan’s Grand Dragon: “The Klan favors … The American public school, non-partisan, non-sectarian, efficient, democratic, for all the children of all the people, equal educational opportunities for all.”

Here’s the full statement. Sheesh.

Anyway, the state was sued and the case made it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was, like, nah man, this is very unconstitutional. It violates the 14th Amendment, the one that extends the rights of liberty to all citizens:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

The world of 2021 is of course very different from 1922. The people in favor of banning private schools today are absolutely not trying to Americanize immigrants. They are definitely not the KKK. Still, it’s very illegal in this country to ban private schools.


Oh, I don’t know how. They change the constitution. The Supreme Court reconsiders. We find some weird loophole in the 14th Amendment, and also the 1st Amendment. You reboot the universe with a magic ring. Whatever.

As of 2017, about 10% of the nation’s students are in private schools, which makes 5.7 million students. That percentage has been declining slowly, with the loss mostly felt by Catholic schools. About a quarter of private school students attend nonsectarian schools. The rest attend religious schools.

What sort of religions are we talking about? Mostly Christian. From 2015: “In fall 2015, some 5.8 million students (10.2 percent of all elementary and secondary students) were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools. Thirty-six percent of private school students were enrolled in Catholic schools, 13 percent were enrolled in conservative Christian schools, 10 percent were enrolled in affiliated religious schools, 16 percent were enrolled in unaffiliated religious schools, and 24 percent were enrolled in nonsectarian schools.”

All of the sudden, public schools would need to change how they handle religious education. To be clear, they wouldn’t have to, or that they should. But I bet there would be pressure to change, and I bet it would succeed.

The United States of America is a bit of a global outlier when it comes to teaching religion. We are the land (supposedly) of the strict separation of Church and State. But in much of Europe some sort of non-doctrinal religious education is compulsory. Granted, if you’re secular you often usually opt-out to take an ethics class instead.

Finland is pretty interesting. A course in religious education is compulsory but you get to choose your flavor depending on your religious beliefs. According to a professional organization for Finnish religion teachers: “In 2012 91.9% of pupils in comprehensive school took part in Evangelical-Lutheran [Religious Education], 1.4% in Orthodox, 1.5% in Islam, 0.5% in other religions and 4% in secular Ethics.” Seems like most people just go with the flow and take the Lutheran course. Still, a nice gesture.

If private schools are banned, the United States is going to have to start letting schools teach religion.

They’re also going to have to make some decisions about whether to actually accommodate religious holidays or dietary restrictions. In New York City providing kosher or halal food in public schools still at the “let’s try this interesting experiment” stage and not “we do this” stage.


About 2.5% of private school students are attending non-sectarian schools. I don’t know where this 2.5% falls on the wealth spectrum, but give-or-take special programs and financial aid, yeah, let’s go ahead and assume that these kids are all pretty well-off financially.

What happens if they all go into the public school system?

The first thing is that scores, particularly math scores, will probably go up. Private schools underperform public schools on math tests, as argued in “The Public School Advantage.” This is also maybe confirmed by an international perspective, where Cuba (whose schools are all public, Castro nationalized all education) outperforms its entire region on math.

Of course, there are a lot of different ways that countries handle private schools. In this graph the red parts are truly private; the grey parts are dependent on government funding but privately operated, so sort of like charters in the US:

Japan has a lot of private schools. So does Mexico.

At least in the US, I don’t think it’s particularly mysterious why scores would go up. The government surveys schools to see how much time they spend on various subjects. With the autonomy that private school purchases, these schools spend less time on math.

Also ELA. I made this chart.

So one thing that would probably happen if private schools were banned is that these wealthier students would score better on math.

But I think the big change would have to do with segregation.

Julie Halpert wrote a really phenomenal piece about public and private schools that catalogs some of what you might expect in a pure public system. The problem is that schools in the US are assigned by neighborhood, and wealthy people can pay to live in wealthy neighborhoods:

Wealthier families tend to buy homes in more expensive areas where the steep taxes result in greater school funding—and are often correlated with higher-quality schools. A study by the Brookings Institution of the country’s 100 largest metro areas found that housing costs tend to correspond with schools’ test scores: On average, home prices near high-performing schools were $205,000 more expensive than they were in areas with low-performing ones. This suggests that in an all-public-school world, those with means would likely buy real estate in well-resourced districts—removing their resources from needier school communities and diluting from those poorer areas the pool of high achievers who experts say can benefit lower-performing students.

If you put wealthy students from powerful families back in the public school system, the main thing you’d get is more wealthy public schools.

And if that doesn’t work, wealthy parents who are sharing a district with poorer ones have another tool in their kit: they can secede, forming a newer, “higher performing” district:

Between 2000 and 2016, 63 communities split off from their existing school districts to form new ones. In just the last two years, 10 more communities have followed. Most of the new districts are more affluent, and less racially diverse, than those they left behind. Another 16 communities are actively exploring efforts to form their own school districts, according to the report.

But would this be widespread? Would there be some benefits for poorer students on the margins?

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say.

But it’s important to remember that educational inequality in this country is primarily a product of wealth inequality, especially for younger students. The advantages of wealth don’t primarily play out in the 2.5% of students attending non-sectarian private school. The advantages of wealth are (necessarily, really) mostly playing out among the other 97.5%.

Educational inequality is a big deal, but the fantasy of eliminating private schools totally misunderstands the problem.

In short: it’s definitely illegal to ban private schools for wealthy students, but even if you could all it would do is increase their math scores and spur the creation of new wealthy schools and school districts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *