Other Factors Equal, Public Schools Make the Grade

February 11, 2007
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In light of the resurgence of school voucher schemes in the South Carolina legislature, I felt it important to blow the dust off a government report questioning the superiority of private school results when outside factors, such as family income level, parents’ education level, presence of both parent in the home, and school size are eliminated from the comparison. The report ( US Dept. of Ed Report Comparing Public Schools and Private Schools ) drew surprisingly little attention here during the debates over Governor Mark Sanford’s voucher plan, which the voters wisely rejected, and it was mostly overlooked during the close contest between Sanford’s voucher candidate for State Superintendent of Education, Karen Floyd, and ultimate winner (and voucher opponent), Jim Rex.

Anyone who bothers to tour one of SC’s $10,000-a-year private schools and then visit a public ”Title 1″ school (high percentage of students in poverty), will immediately that note that the schools aren’t dealing with the same set of apples. The average kid walking in the private school door has a whole string of advantages before he crosses the threshold. So, the National Center for Education Statistics, authors of the study, used statistical modeling to factor out student background factors, the goal being to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of private and public school performance when students entering the system start with roughly the same background. Here’s the Summary of their “Executive Summary” (bold emphasis is mine):

In grades 4 and 8 for both reading and mathematics, students in private schools achieved at higher levels than students in public schools. The average difference in school means ranged from almost 8 points for grade 4 mathematics, to about 18 points for grade 8 reading. The average differences were all statistically significant. Adjusting the comparisons for student characteristics resulted in reductions in all four average differences of approximately 11 to 14 points. Based on adjusted school means, the average for public schools was significantly higher than the average for private schools for grade 4 mathematics, while the average for private schools was significantly higher than the average for public schools for grade 8 reading. The average differences in adjusted school means for both grade 4 reading and grade 8 mathematics were not significantly different from zero.

Comparisons were also carried out with subsets of private schools categorized by sectarian affiliation. After adjusting for student characteristics, raw score average differences were reduced by about 11 to 15 points. In grade 4, Catholic and Lutheran schools were each compared to public schools. For both reading and mathematics, the results were generally similar to those based on all private schools. In grade 8, Catholic, Lutheran, and Conservative Christian schools were each compared to public schools. For Catholic and Lutheran schools for both reading and mathematics, the results were again similar to those based on all private schools. For Conservative Christian schools, the average adjusted school mean in reading was not significantly different from that of public schools. In mathematics, the average adjusted school mean for Conservative Christian schools was significantly lower than that of public schools.

To summarize the summary of the summary, public schools are doing a pretty good job with the cards they’ve been dealt. Not much better or worse than Catholic or Lutheran alternatives. And Christian Conservative schools (which predominate the private school options in the Bible Belt state)? Well, you be the judge. I’m sure there are some good ones out there. And if Governor Sanford were to offer the state’s poorest kids a full scholarship and transportation to one of the best ones – say, the school his kids attend – I might take his voucher scheme seriously.

Check out the Public/Private Comparison.

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9 Responses to Other Factors Equal, Public Schools Make the Grade

  1. February 12, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    You might be interested to learn that Harvard’s Paul Peterson has already debunked that study.

    Another study that you might find interesting is this article from the Georgetown Law Review entitled The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First.

    You can learn a lot about school choice by visting this blog or this .

  2. February 12, 2007 at 8:29 pm
  3. February 13, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    TN,  Thanks for your comment and links. I actually read a fair bit of Paul Peterson’s rebutal. I’m no statistician, but I can see there’s ample opportunity for both sides to jigger the numbers in their position’s favor.
    You might be interested to know that Peterson’s study won him the “Damned Lies Award for Statistical Subterfuge” in the Arizona State U. 2006 – Bunkum Awards in Education. Here’s their review of the “debunking”.
    You and other readers might note that Paul Peterson also authored a widely-discredited report singing the praises of the Milwaukee voucher experiment.
    University of Illinois researchers release an independent report (Lubienski University of Illinois Study) earlier in 2006 that basically arrived at the same conclusions as the NCES report.  
    For a list of articles addressing both sides of the voucher debate, go to South-Western College Publishing Voucher Debate Resource List.
    For a more partisan take on the conservative/sectarian assaults on public education, check out the School Matters blog.
     I don’t have the answers to this complex issue, but consider this:
    If we adopt the same competitive market model for our education system that we’ve clung to in our health care system, we’re sure to acheve the same resounding success. Picture 49 million flunkies, and private school CEOs pulling down $150 million contracts.
    I’m a capitalist. Really. But I’m also a realist. I don’t buy laissez-faire education, any more than laissez-faire health care, any more than laissez-faire national defense, or laissez-faire justice. Some aspects our our society simply can’t be forced into a market model like so many bushels of corn.

  4. February 14, 2007 at 4:25 am

    In one of his comments, TN included a link to to the website of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

    The Black CoMMentator called BAEO a “black voucher front group.”

    Take a look at Sourcewatch.org on the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), where you’ll find that the group is funded by the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Bush Administration, and other groups that have been pouring money into voucher initiatives.

    People For the American Way had a few comments about BAEO.

  5. February 14, 2007 at 10:41 am

    At a certain point, every Progressive has to choose: do you put greater value on increasing opportunities for children from marginalized and disenfranchised communities (poor and minorities) or do you care more about the middle-aged, middle class white union members and bureaucrats who are f*cking them over?

    People for the American Way is the bulldog for the teachers’ unions.

    The reason that teacher’s unions are bad is that they prevent bad teachers from being fired and good teachers from being paid more. See here and here.
    And, if you really want to understand, here.

    School choice works.

    School choice improves *public* schools.

    School choice raises graduation rates.

    School choice narrows the achievement gap.

    School choice promotes integration.

    School choice increases parental satisfaction.

    School choice raises student achievement.

  6. February 14, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    TN,  your last comment plopped in the spam bucket, thanks to thinly disguised potty mouth. Keep it civil, please.
    THIS PROGRESSIVE puts maximum value on the educational opportunities for my two public-schooled kids and all the rest of the middle and lower income kids, who would lose under the voucher plan being pushed by the right wing in South Carolina.
    The better private schools in South Carolina charge $8000-10,000 a year for tuition. So how much good is a $4500/year voucher going to do a kid living in poverty? That’s assuming that the good private schools would even accept such a kid, who might start with underdeveloped verbal skills, lagging behavioural skills, limited parental support, and other poverty-related strikes against him.
    The minute a significant number of such voucher students walk through the door of a top private school, the well-healed parents would drawing up plans for a more exclusive (expensive) school to send their kids to, and they would take the better teachers with them.
    Leaving the poor kids with the left-overs, as usual.
    Public education is, or should be, about giving every kid, regardless of family income or background, the best possible shot at improving himself and his prospects.
    The voucher proposal currently before the SC Legislature is not even remotely about providing real choice for poor SC kids. It’s about rich and upper-middle class folks taking tax money to abandon the public schools and leave the poorest in our society to rummage through the clearance section.

  7. February 14, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    For an even better informed discussion of the school choice issue in South Carolina, checkout Brad Warthen’s Blog:
    Here’s the discussion link: Voucher Debate on Brad Warthen’s Blog.

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