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.