Vouchers and Test Scores: Stalking Horses in the War over Education
A few days ago a study was released from the US Department of Education comparing test scores between public and private school students. What was intresting was that, after the scores were compared, a second comparison was made after adjusting for income and other factors, which found that there was statistically little differences between the group scores at the public schools versus the private schools. From the report's summary:
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.
Much has been made of this study in the Edusphere, and you can read some great commentary at Scott Elliot's Get on the Bus, the Illinois Federation of Teachers'website, Edwize, Mike Klonsky's Small Talk, and science blog, to name just a few.
Our vacationing pal EdWonk has a recent post about this study and vouchers up over at his place. This post coincides with the announcement on Wednesday that Congressional Republicans have unveiled a $100 million voucher plan (emphasis mine):
Congressional Republicans on Tuesday proposed a $100 million plan to let poor children leave struggling schools and attend private schools at public expense.
The voucher idea is one in a series of social conservative issues meant to energize the Republican base as midterm elections approach. In announcing their bills, House and Senate sponsors acknowledged that Congress likely won't even vote on the legislation this year.
Still, the move signals a significant education fight to come. GOP lawmakers plan to try to work their voucher plan into the No Child Left Behind law when it is updated in 2007.
"Momentum is on our side," said Representative Howard McKeon, R-California, the chairman of the House education committee.
The Bush administration requested the school-choice plan, but Tuesday's media event caused some awkwardness for the Education Department. The agency just released a study that raises questions about whether private schools offer any advantage over public ones.
Under the new legislation, the vouchers would mainly go to students in poor schools that have failed to meet their progress goals for at least five straight years.
Parents could get $4,000 per year to put toward private-school tuition or a public school outside their local district. They could also seek up to $3,000 per year for extra tutoring.
Supporters say poor parents deserve choices, like rich families have. When schools don't work, said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, "parents must have other opportunities."
During Bush's presidency, Congress approved the first federal voucher program in the District of Columbia, and private-school aid for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
So far, Congress has refused to approve Bush's national voucher proposals. The new one is the first to target money for kids in schools that have fallen short under federal law.
In the post at EdWonk's place, a voucher proponent makes the following statements:
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.
Let's try to look at all of this together. First, let me repeat my caveat about statistics. Statistics give a picture of a group average. They are not usually good for seeing individual stories and experiences unless they are statistically significant. For instance, talent is distributed in a statistically insignificant manner throughout the population. That doesn't make talent any less important-- probably makes talent more significant. since there is so little of it. Someone who merely relies on statistics has a view of the world which relies on mean, median, and mode. And none of these are actual reality. Thus, even within these statistical pictures representing public schools and private schools, there are public school kids who scored far higher than private school kids, and there are private school kids who, despite all the advanatages of private school, scored abominably. And vice versa. On a different day, with the same test, one might well get very different results from individual students. This is one study. But it's fun to play with anyway, so we do.
Now, of course, we can view the public-private scores study as impinging upon the voucher debate. No point in demanding that we solve the educational malaise in public schools with vouchers as a cure all if really they work like echinacea on a cold.
Regarding the claim that private schools spend less to educate students than public schools, I would like to echo a commenter over at Edwonk's place by noting that the differential is partially consumed by higher salaries for staff in public schools versus private schools. Another commenter pointed out the vast amount of money which public schools spend on special education, which further drives up the average cost per student. Further, in private schools students often pay for their books and other materials out of pocket, which is not included in the tuition.
Now, the new voucher program that has been put forth by Congressional Republicans would offer $4000 to low income students in failing schools to use toward private school tuition or tuition to another public school.
Would this be adequate? Most private schools in the area where I live charge more than $4000 in tuition, including Catholic and other religious schools. My public school district charges non-resident students more than twice that amount. Where would impoverished parents get the extra money they would need to make up the difference?
Additionally, we must consider one of the main differences between public schools and private schools. A public school must take everyone-- and I mean everyone. A private school may discriminate on the basis of religion, income, handicap, and even test scores. What if this impoverished student with voucher in hand has an IEP or 504 plan? The private school may not be forced to accept this student. If students have had low grades and low test scores, they may be denied admission. Honoring choice in education doesn't really mean that parents have the choice to send their children wherever they want-- private schools have the right to close the doors to whomever they please. Some private schools are set up to educate kids with disabilities-- but their tuitions are often twice that of public schools.
To many of my acquaintances who send their children to some of the more prestigious private schools in our area, one part of the appeal is their exclusivity. There is a cachet to claiming affiliation with one of these places, even if that affiliation is through one's children. Once vouchers are in place and extended to those of all income levels, what is to keep these schools from raising tuition or maintaining admissions standards in such a way as to keep the hoi polloi out while providing a nifty rebate to those who would pay private school tuition anyway? Answer: nothing. Some universities did just that as money from the GI Bill flowed into higher education in the years after World War II.
Now, many proponents of vouchers who send their children to private school already claim that they should not be forced to support an institution from which they get no benefit or with which they do not agree. If all citizens in our society were allowed to make this argument successfully, we wouldn't have much of a society or a functional government. I know many people who would like to redirect their tax moneys away from supporting the war in Iraq. I know other people who really do not wish to help foot the bill for Joe Schmoe's mother to stay in a nursing home after she has spent down her assets. I can think of quite a few public officials whose salaries I would like the option of not supporting with my tax dollars.
Older adults with grown children or corporations often make this kind of argument when their local school district tries to get a tax increase voted in. They fail to realize that a large part of the value of their homes and businesses is dependent upon having good quality schools in the area. In addition, companies need to have access to qualified workers. The quality of local public schools is a factor in attracting relocating businesses, which then effects the economy of the entire area. Thus, even if they have no children enrolled in their local public schools, all residents have an investment in maintaining good schools. Likewise, a large part of our nation's strength and leadership in the world is directly tied to public financial support which provides access to schools for all. We all pay for the fire department even if our house never burns down. People who make these kinds of arguments value the individual far more than society and community.
Causing the collapse of public education will not increase the choices for anyone. Vouchers and tests designed to make all schools appear to fail are one step down this dark path.
****Update: By the way, for some interesting info on the DC Schools voucher program, which is the only federal voucher program in place (due to the fact that Congress controls the District of Columbia) head over to A Constrained Vision.