Public Studies Puncture the Privatization Bubble

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

Voucher proponents often rely on two main arguments to win converts: that private schools are better than public schools and that competition from private schools will force public schools to improve.

There’s one problem, however. There is no data to support such claims. What’s more, recent findings not only challenge the claims but suggest that it would be more appropriate to focus on supporting and improving public schools.

A report this October by the middle-of-the-road Center on Education Policy found that low-income students at private urban high schools did no better academically than their public-school counterparts.

In addition, new data this September from the U.S. Department of Education undercuts the “competition” rationale for the voucher program in Milwaukee, home of the country’s oldest initiative under which public dollars pay for tuition at private schools. Using statistics from what is commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” the department put Wisconsin dead last in the country in terms of the achievement gap between white students and black students. The results were widely seen as an indication of the achievement gap in Milwaukee, where most of the state’s black students attend school.

Are Private Schools Better?

A common perception, fueled by repeated yet unsubstantiated arguments from voucher proponents, is that private schools are inherently superior to public schools. Thus, the voucher rationale goes, students should have the “choice” to attend private schools at public expense.

But what happens when you take into account students’ background-not just their socioeconomic status, but issues such as parental involvement? And what if you look at achievement over time, not just based on a snapshot test?

With such questions in mind, the Center on Education Policy studied longitudinal data and focused on low-income students from inner-city high schools. It also took into account student and family background characteristics.

In its report “Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High Schools?” the center found that, “Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that students who attend private high schools receive neither immediate academic advantages nor longer-term advantages in attending college, finding satisfaction in the job market, or participating in civic life.”

The study reported four core findings:

  • Students attending private high schools performed no better on achievement tests than students in traditional public high schools.
  • Students from private high schools were no more likely to attend college.
  • Young adults who attended private high schools were no more satisfied with their jobs at age 26.
  • Young adults from private high schools were no more engaged in civic activities at age 26.

Overall, the study could find only two exceptions to these general findings. First, students at independent private high schools had higher SAT scores. “This finding suggests that while these schools are no better at teaching the subject matter, they may provide students with test-taking skills… or they may enroll students with higher IQs,” according to the study.

The second exception was that Catholic schools run by religious orders such as the Jesuits did have some positive academic effects. “There are few such schools, however; most Catholic schools are run by their diocese,” the report noted.

Based in Washington, D.C., the Center on Education Policy was founded in January 1995 as an independent advocate for more effective public schools, with funding from foundations such as the Joyce Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and Phi Delta Kappa International.

While focusing on urban high schools and low-income students, the center’s findings are in line with a study last summer from the U.S. Department of Education that looked at fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test. The NAEP test is sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card because the same test is given to selected students across the country in both private and public schools.

The 2006 U.S. Department of Education study found that, except in eighth-grade reading, public school students did as well if not better than students in private schools, if one factors in race and socio-economic backgrounds. The study, which looked at 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools, also found that conservative Christian schools did significantly worse than public schools on eighth-grade math.

Does “Competition” Improve Public Schools?

The Internet-based magazine The Black Commentator wrote in a 2005 cover story that Wisconsin, in particular Milwaukee, “justly merit the invidious distinction of the Worst Place in the Nation to be Black.”

“Most of the state’s African Americans reside in the Milwaukee area, and most of its black prisoners are drawn from just a handful of poor and economically deprived black communities where jobs, intact families and educational opportunities are the most scarce, and paroled back into those same neighborhoods,” the magazine noted.

For years, however, leading economic and political forces in Milwaukee have focused their energies on vouchers as the key to improving life for the city’s African Americans, rather than job creation, support for public schools or improved housing and health care.

Ever since the Milwaukee voucher program began in 1990, proponents have argued that vouchers will spur improved academic achievement among the voucher students at private schools (about 18,500 this year) and because competition from vouchers will force the Milwaukee Public Schools to improve. Since its inception, the program has cost taxpayers about $750 million.

It’s impossible to say whether voucher students do better academically because the schools are exempt from the same testing and reporting requirements as public schools. A recent mandate that the voucher schools participate in an achievement study has been enveloped by controversy in part because the results will not be broken down on a school-by-school basis, and a number of schools have balked at taking part, thus potentially skewing the results.

One thing is clear: the focus on private voucher schools has sapped the time, energy, and money needed for more worthwhile ways to reform public education. Thus, more than 25 years after vouchers were touted as a silver-bullet reform to improve achievement, black students in Milwaukee are doing as badly if not worse when compared with their white counterparts.

When the NAEP test scores were released this September, Wisconsin found itself in the unenviable position of having the worst achievement gap in the country. NAEP results are released on a statewide basis, but the scores were driven by the results in Milwaukee. Not only is it the state’s largest city, but it is the only city where African Americans constitute the largest percentage of students (57 percent).

Shortly after the NAEP statistics were released, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) issued a book using Milwaukee as a case study of “Vouchers and Public School Performance.”

The EPI study tested for improved student performance in public schools resulting from increased competition from voucher schools. Overall, according to the study’s Executive Summary, “our analysis finds little or no indication” that pupils in Milwaukee public schools were better off academically due to increased competition from voucher schools.

Barbara Miner, a Milwaukee-based journalist, is a regular contributor to Rethinking Schools.