Private education has long been the choice of elites and those seeking religious education for their children in post-Enlightenment secular societies. In that role it has rarely been questioned even after the rise of mass public education. If parents wanted to pay for their children’s education using private resources, they have almost universally—except in fascist or communist dictatorships—been accorded the right to do so. This parallel existence of mass public and specialized private education has been the norm in Europe, the United States, Latin America, Oceania, and parts of Asia for more than a century. However, in the past few decades, private education has been pushed politically into a new role—as a “preferred alternative” to public education in terms of a strategy to improve mass education and to make it more cost-effective. This version of educational politics claims that as a preferred alternative, private schools should have a similar right to public funding as public schools.
Thus, the main question regarding private education in the current debate is whether public monies coming from taxpayers should help finance students to attend privately-owned, privately-run schools. Yet, equally important questions, more rarely asked, are whether (a) private schools taking public monies should be held to the same level of accountability as public schools—that is, what kind and degree of regulation do such public subsidies carry with them so that private education is sufficiently accountable to the public—and (b) whether the entire proposal of shifting public monies to private from public education is largely a less than effective investment strategy and thus a distraction from more effective efforts to improve learning focused on public education. The answers to these questions are nested in a larger set of issues regarding the benefits and costs to society of providing publicly funded education through a publicly or a privately managed system, or a combination of the two.
In this policy paper, we (1) explore the theoretical discussion around publicly subsidizing private education; (2) develop a framework for understanding the assumptions and rationales behind subsidizing private education; (3) assess the empirical evidence regarding social benefits and costs of publicly-subsidized private religious and secular schools (and home schooling) as it might be applied in a country such as Brazil, and (4) examine what the data tell us about the need for regulatory frameworks in publicly-funded private systems.