The economics of private schools

By Felix Salmon
August 27, 2009
spectacularly good comment on my blog entry about the charitable status of private schools which would more than deserve elevation as an entry of its own were it not for the fact that (s)he has gone into even more detail here and here. The main insight is that the "top" schools tend to advertise themselves and compete on the basis of how well their pupils do in exams, what universities they get into, that kind of thing. And that they can boost those numbers substantially by giving scholarships and bursaries to super-smart poorer kid

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Pockets has a spectacularly good comment on my blog entry about the charitable status of private schools which would more than deserve elevation as an entry of its own were it not for the fact that (s)he has gone into even more detail here and here. The main insight is that the “top” schools tend to advertise themselves and compete on the basis of how well their pupils do in exams, what universities they get into, that kind of thing. And that they can boost those numbers substantially by giving scholarships and bursaries to super-smart poorer kids:

UK private schools are among the best schools on the planet, and I was lucky enough to attend one. Saying that they maximise profits isn’t saying that they’re manipulative or evil or bad (I wonder if this is what’s annoying people?). They’re staffed with many lovely, caring individuals (like lots of other profit-maximising companies!), and through scholarships/bursaries they offer a great trade to smart poor kids – we’ll give you an amazing education, if you allow us to charge other kids to sit next to you.

Given that the schools would do this even if they didn’t have charitable status, it’s not clear why we’re giving it to them. As Pockets writes:

If you wanted to convince me of a private school which is acting charitably, not profit-maximising, then you’d have to describe a system where pupils take the entrance exam – and then the low-scoring poor children are offered bursaries. That’s a school which is gambling on its ability to raise standards among disadvantaged kids. But no private school does that, and with excellent reason: the cost could be lower league table results for the school.

Matt Yglesias also makes a point about private schools which I should have made initially:

They’re certainly not charities. And as best one can tell, their main impact on the common weal is negative, drawing parents with resources and social capital out of the public school system and contributing to its neglect.

You’d have to believe that New York City’s public schools would be both better funded and free of this kind of nonsense if a larger portion of the city’s elite were sending their kids to them.

There’s an analogy here to the studies showing the beneficial effects of homeownership. The problem is that two effects get mixed up: on the one hand, people who own their own homes do tend to live better lives. But on the other hand, those are the kind of people who would probably live better lives anyway, and by moving away from rental neighborhoods they effectively ghettoize those left behind. Similarly with private schools, especially in areas where a high percentage of local kids gets educated privately (like where I grew up, in Dulwich): the local public schools can be very bad indeed, despite the huge number of rich and highly-educated parents in their catchment area. To put it in economist-speak, private schools inflict a negative externality on the quality of education in the neighboring state-run schools.

Incidentally, pace another comment in the original thread, Greenpeace is not a registered charity in the UK — at least the headline organization which most people think of when they think of Greenpeace, Greenpeace Ltd, is not a charity. Not everybody in the non-profit space is a charity, and there’s no particularly good reason why all private schools should be charities, either.

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