The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, has just released a study comparing the performance of fourth- and eighth-graders in public and private schools. As important as this research may sound, I think it is more a symptom of our education problems than a useful tool in solving them.
Generally, studies show students in private schools outperforming students in public schools. However, in this research, statistical adjustment was made to account for differences in socioeconomic background.
The result: Whereas the raw data shows superior performance in private schools, much of that differential is eradicated after the statistical massaging. Public-school fourth-graders did better; however, the reading advantage at the eighth-grade level remained with the private-school kids.
Predictably, the National Education Association wasted no time to use this study to affirm the unqualified success of the public-school system and to use it as ammo to further load up in its endless and tireless attack on vouchers and school choice.
But there are many things the study doesn't say.
One, as John Tierney of The New York Times points out, is that, on average, private-school tuition is about half of what the average public school spends per student (no, most private schools are not fancy New England prep schools). So, even after going through statistical gymnastics to account for differences in kids' backgrounds, public schools spend far more to get not much better results.
Tierney goes on to point out that studies specifically designed to test results for providing a choice option in a district under controlled circumstances show that kids with vouchers do better.
But, frankly, with limited taxpayer dollars available, and 3 million kids nationwide in failing schools, is funding more research what we need?
Let's keep in mind that this is work funded by the Department of Education. The department was established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter to improve education in our country. The department's budget then was $14.5 billion. Today, its budget has grown sixfold. Yet over the same period of time there has been virtually zero change, on average, in test scores.
Now I have no doubt that many of the bureaucrats walking the halls of the Department of Education are very fine people. But my common sense is violated to think that a parent in Los Angeles, where my organization CURE is headquartered, needs a single one of these folks in Washington to get his or her child educated. I certainly question that parents need much, or indeed any, of the reams of research and studies the department conducts to get their child educated.
The Department of Education may report that, on average, after filtering out socioeconomic differences, fourth-graders in public schools did better on tests than fourth-graders in private schools. But what are black and Latino parents with kids in Los Angeles Unified School District schools supposed to do with this information? Nine out of 10 black and Latino fourth-graders in L.A. public schools score below proficiency in reading and math.
What are the parents of the 250,000 kids in Los Angeles who are in schools that are failing by No Child Left Behind standards supposed to do with this information?
Can anyone still in touch with their common sense doubt that these parents would prefer having a choice where to send their kids to school? Anyone who does doubt this should talk to these parents. My staff does. We're working with them and trying to get at least the school choice that No Child Left Behind guarantees them.
We, along with the Alliance for School Choice, have filed complaints with the school districts in Los Angeles that they are not in compliance with NCLB because they are not informing parents that they have the option to transfer their child. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has given the districts until Aug. 15 to respond to our complaint or have their Title I funds from the federal government jeopardized.
Choice, competition and freedom are core values that define what we are about as a nation. It is troubling to think that we have gotten to the point where these truths are no longer obvious and we have to do research to try and figure out if they are a good idea.
The Bush administration proposal to appropriate $100 million in opportunity scholarships for poor kids in failing schools is a needed program. Let's use our limited taxpayer dollars to enhance education freedom for poor families and not on superfluous research and bureaucracy.