Private Schools and Sports

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I’m not much into sports, so arguments about long-standing high school rivalries hold no allure for me.  But Bob Plain’s been engaging in some Twitter banter about public schools versus private schools, particularly in relation to sports, and it raises an important point.

Private school teams, he claims, “are essentially all-star teams,” elaborating that they “drain away the talent – sometimes they just buy it!”  The subsequent exchanges focus on whether private schools give athletic scholarships, but doesn’t that kind of miss the point?

Really, what’s the argument here?  That private schools might give a discount to students who play competitive sports?  You know who gives a really big discount for education — as in just about free?  Public schools.

The important question is why private schools’ core product of education is considered to be so superior to public schools’ that offering a discount can blithely be declared to be “buying” students.  I’m not bashing public schools, here.  Bob Plain is a big advocate for public schools, as well as an avid class warrior, and even he takes it as given that a private school that charges no tuition is essentially engaging in an unfair competitive practice against public schools.

That’s a very common assumption, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.  And it’s an indication of a problem.

Public schools have massive revenue advantages over most private schools.  In some cases — notably, the schools directly controlled by the Providence Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church — the income brackets of private school students aren’t as different from the general public as one might think.

If public schools can’t compete for student talent, it’s an indication that educating students is not their core mission.  And if Bob’s right, athletic teams clearly aren’t their core mission, either.



  • mangeek

    I went to private school. The Public school next door was in a lower division, but they regularly wiped the floor with us when we practiced together. They were more talented, we just had vans, parents who could pay for hotel rooms, and uniforms they couldn’t afford.

  • helen

    Mangeek,I went to private school too. My parents could not have imagined affording vans,hotel rooms or uniforms. You must be very spoiled.

  • helen

    mangeek,I gotta tell ya,I think your sympathy is so skewed. There’s something amiss in what you have said here. It’s that these less financially well off students are unrealistically elevated in your opinion. That team might have been better players,yet it’s no reason to discount your team’s efforts just because your parents were more financially well off.
    That comes off as false modesty,even a condescending attitude. Do you see it?

  • helen

    By the way,although I had invitations,I could never go to a prom because my parents could not afford a dress. Also for a while we got charity food baskets from the Church. So much for private school students being on a higher financial rung,mangeek.

  • helen

    Anyway,how did the public school compare to your private school in academics,mangeek? Isn’t that the real burning question?

  • mikeinri

    Justin, you must know that education is not all about competition for students. Public schools must educate ALL students, not just those that meet certain academic requirements. Special education can account for a quarter of a school department’s budget, and costs continue to rise. Poorly behaved students and those who have no interest in school are required to be there, and these students often consume time meant for teaching and learning. I realize that public schools have problems, for a variety of reasons. But private schools like LaSalle, Hendricken and Mount can develop elite athletic programs that win championships and draw the attention of colleges and universities. Only one public school, Tollgate, has won a state hockey championship since the mid 70s. Since 1975 LaSalle has won 3, Hendricken 3, and Mount 32 championships. Cumberland High may only compete for Cumberland kids, Burrillville for Burrillville kids, but Mount competes for kids all over Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. But to suggest that public and private schools are competing on the same field (or ice rink) is ridiculous.

    • Justin Katz

      I hear what you’re saying, but it’s a bit beside the point. The accusation is that private schools are “buying” athletes, but the closest to that claim that anybody can come is to say that they “buy” them by giving them discounts. That indicates that the students want to go to those schools in the first place.
      I don’t see how any of your justification for public schools’ doing worse are anything but evidence that I’m correct: Something’s not right. The system isn’t working. And is the goal of public schools to educate students to the best of their individual abilities or to ensure that they all have the maximum of self esteem?
      And I’d suggest that public schools can and do compete for students more broadly than you suggest. People do choose where to live based in part on the school systems.

      • mikeinri

        What hockey player wouldn’t want to go to Mount? It’s not unusual to hear my students who are young hockey players say they hope to go to Mount for high school. Rocco Baldelli is from a well known Woonsocket family and grew up in Cumberland, but when it came time to choose a high school, he went to Hendricken instead of nearby Mount. Could it have been that Mount’s baseball program wasn’t very good. If hockey was Rocco’s sport, still think he would have traveled to Hendricken? I agree public schools are not working for all students, that we need more options. And I agree with your last sentence, except that economic conditions oftentimes limit choices. It’s not as easy as choosing between Pawtucket and East Greenwich. I think these private schools need to be part of their own league, where the competition is fair. This would allow public school athletes to have the chance to play in state championship games.

        • Justin Katz

          Fair enough. As I said, I’m not looking at it from the perspective of a sports fan, and athletics isn’t my main concern.

          • mikeinri

            I understand. But I think athletics poses as an analogy. Public schools have vocational programs, provide special education services (for many students until they are 21) and deal with the emotional and behavioral issues brought by a generalized population of students. Unlike union leaders, I think it’s fair to compare charter schools to regular public schools. But your original premise, that public schools should be able to compete with elite private schools, is simply unfair.

          • Justin Katz

            I may have overemphasized the notion of competition. My central point was to respond to the idea that private schools are buying off athletes by offering them discounts toward a product that the public schools are providing free (apart from taxes, which families pay anyway). That’s indicative of a major problem in the public schools.
            I’m curious, though. You’ve listed three private high schools. Others are arguably more “elite” (St. Andrews, Portsmouth Abbey, St. George’s, etc.). Do you see a difference between “elite” and “private high school”?

          • mikeinri

            You’re right. The schools I mentioned are private schools with elite athletic programs. The others, like St. Andrews, etc., fall into the category of elite academic schools. I appreciate the role parochial schools like LaSalle and Mount play in the education of our kids. I want parents to have these choices, both for their college prep abilities and their religious foundations. And I know they offer scholarships for those who meet the criteria but cannot afford tuition. There is a difference, so to label them as elite in general was unwarranted.

          • Justin Katz

            Just for clarity: I wasn’t trying to catch you on that. I was genuinely curious. Private schools are a much bigger thing in Rhode Island than in the area of New Jersey where I grew up, at least in my young perception of things, so I’m interested in any sense of others’ perceptions that I can get.

    • Max

      Maybe they are buying athletes but I’m not sure how that has any bearing on the condition of public education unless they’re buying all the academically elite too. I think Mike’s hockey example is not a good benchmark. Lets face it, hockey is the sport of white suburbia and who is more able to send their kids to private school? I think if you look at other sports, you’ll find a more level playing field.

      Curious but aren’t St. Andrews, the Abbey, and St. George prep schools?

      • Justin Katz

        I’m not sure what you mean by “prep school,” but they are boarding schools, with large portions of their students coming from out of state. They all have significant “commuter” or “day” populations, though.
        Be that as it may, they are “elite private schools” by just about anybody’s definition.

        • Max

          That’s what I meant. Sorry, I thought everyone called them prep schools.

        • Max

          That maybe but getting back to the OP, I still don’t understand why Plain is trying to connect those dots.

      • mikeinri

        Max, you would think that was the case, but not anymore. Since 2000, LaSalle has won 8 state championships in soccer and 3 in football. Hendricken has won 8 basketball, 10 baseball, and the last 5 consecutive football championships. Even in indoor track, Hendricken has won 11 state championships since 2000. You do not find a more level playing field in other sports.

  • Warrington Faust

    Private colleges regularly engage in “buying” students. This is known as the “discount rate”, which may exceed 40%. In other words, in a college with a small endowment, when a full pay student pays $40,000 in tuition, over $16,000 goes to subsidize a “scholarship” student. Colleges with large endowments use the proceeds to subsidize al students.

    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/07/02/prices-rise-colleges-are-offering-students-steeper-discounts-again

    I went to a private school. My favorite memory is the day the English master walked in and offered the following couplet:
    “hooray, hooray, it’s the first of May;
    outside screwing begins today”

  • George from Warwick

    Curious but aren’t St. Andrews, the Abbey, and St. George prep schools?

    The term “Prep school” is just slang for “elite private high school”, as Justin pointed out

    … and I intend to send my now-4-mo-old grand·daughter to one

    =► St George’s, natch !! It is routinely listed as one of the top private high schools in America. Otherwise she will end up at Cranston East, speaking of which ….

    Re: People do choose where to live based in part on the school systems.

    They can be sneakier than that even

    Back before I moved to Warwick I lived in Edgewood for 8 yrs. Cranston East had so many kids from LaProv sneaking in that RIPTA actually had to add buses to the Prov-Cranston route to accommodate them all

    p.s. I attended a private Catholic all-boys boarding HS, St Charles Borromeo — now closed — in Wickliffe OH. Almost all of the success I’ve enjoyed in life is rooted in the 4 yrs I spent there

  • George from Warwick

    Justin’s main point here is so axiomatic that most of the posters here don’t even mention it … i.e. that private schools are exponentially better than public schools

    Why do you think all the pols pay lip service to public education but then send their own kids to a private school ??

    But you know who I *really* feel bad for ?? My friends who live on the east side of LaProv

    They routinely pay $20K or even $25K in property taxes and then HAVE TO pony up the bucks for private schools. Or else what ?? — send your kid to fricken Hope HS ??

    The best thing about the public schools in LaProv is that you can use them to get your kids to obey: “If you don’t shut up & do your chores, I am sending you to Hope !!!”

    • Warrington Faust

      “But you know who I *really* feel bad for ?? My friends who live on the east side of LaProv ”

      I have felt the same way about people who bought into the “East SIde Extension” where Hope Street runs into Pawtucket. I understand Wheeler and Moses Bown are now jammed.

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