Thursday, August 03, 2006

Education Study

The Department of Education released a study recently showing that on average, kids from similar backgrounds (race, family, and income) did almost as well in public schools as in private schools. Some people viewed this study as a blow to the voucher movement. I think that such a conclusion is illogical and misinformed.

The Department of Education study -- at most -- tells us what the nationwide average is. It tells us that if you average together the best and worst private schools (from the $20,000-a-year boarding school to the fly-by-night operation that just opened up), and the best and worst public schools (from the toniest suburb in Connecticut to the worst inner-city school in Detroit), the nationwide average is roughly similar.

But children who are likely to be eligible for vouchers do not attend schools that equal the nationwide average. To the contrary, as of the 2006 edition of The Education Gap, by William Howell and Paul Peterson, every publicly-funded voucher program in the country was aimed at 1) students from low-income families, or 2) students who attend "failing" public schools, or 3) students who have no public school in their community. [One sometimes comes across people who believe that vouchers are intended to help rich white people pay for expensive private schools. Nothing could be further from the truth.]

So: In a typical case, a poor black student attending a failing inner-city school with a 50% drop-out rate is offered a voucher. Is it any use to that student to be told that she should be satisfied with this failing public school, because, after all, if her school's performance was averaged with that of a public school in a ritzy white suburb of New York City, it would then be similar to the nationwide average of private schools? How on earth is that message relevant to her situation? The fact is, her local public school is failing her needs, and a private school (such as a Catholic school or something like this) may be far better for her.

That last point isn't necessarily true, of course. A few private schools that take voucher students sometimes turn out to be shoddy and poorly-run enterprises. But that doesn't discredit the entire notion of vouchers, any more than the occasional case of Medicare fraud proves that the entire system should be scrapped.



Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

How well they do isn't the only issue, either. There's also the issue of how much they learn, which can vary significantly even if their actual grade numbers don't vary. Then there's the issue of what kind of environment the school fosters, which affects moral development. That can also vary greatly while the numerical grade is constant.

7:56 AM  

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