The debate is, it seems, as old as schools themselves: do students benefit more and perform better in a private school environment? Even when the local public school system is excellent?

These are some of the questions facing Canadian parents today, Sachin Maharaj writes in a column in the Toronto Star. According to a 2012 Ipsos-Reid poll cited in the article, two-thirds of Canadian parents said they would send their children to private schools, rather than their local public schools, if they could afford it. There appears to be a vast preference among Canadian parents for the supposedly superior education provided by private schools – despite the fact that Canada’s public school system is consistently ranked among the world’s best.

Private schools, clearly, are doing a better job of promoting their benefits, using university admissions data and a dizzying array of extra-curricular activities to convince parents that they would do their child a disservice by leaving him or her to languish in a public school. Yet there are plenty of public schools that also help their students gain admission to top universities and offer coding clubs or lacrosse teams.

Perhaps a more significant difference, writes Maharaj, is the fact that private school students, on average, attain better academic outcomes than their public school counterparts. A recent Fraser Institute ranking of Ontario’s top elementary schools, for example, placed a disproportionate number of private schools among the highest spots on the list. Only about 6 percent of Canadian school age children attend private schools, but more than a third of the top-ranked schools on the Fraser list were private schools. Private school students in Canada also score higher overall on comparative assessments like the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

But do these results mean that private schools actually provide a superior education to that offered at public schools?

Some experts say no.

The Public School Advantage, a book published in 2013 by a married team of education professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, posits that demographics and socioeconomic status are actually far more accurate predictors of student achievement, regardless of what kind of school the student attends. Essentially, students from more affluent backgrounds tend to perform better than students living in poverty across all types of schools.

They concluded, “Private, autonomous, choice-based schools are not necessarily more innovative or academically effective but instead often perform at lower levels even as they attract more able students.”

“There is this constant chorus of ‘public schools are failing,’” author Christopher A. Lubienski told The Atlantic. “Parents are told this by the media and by a lot of reform organizations and so I think that message gets internalized. People just assume that private is better. It appears that might not be true.”

Though there are many good reasons to send children to different types of private schools, ranging from academic environments that best meet the student’s individual needs to those that align with the family’s religious beliefs, it seems that the simple belief that private schools inherently provide a “better” education may need to be reexamined – and that families, at least in Canada, would be wise to take a second look at their local public school before writing any checks.

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