Last week, attorneys representing parents, clergy, and taxpayers in Douglas County filed 80 some pages of documentation with the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that the Douglas County School District’s Choice Scholarship Program violates the Colorado School Finance Act and four sections of the Colorado Constitution. The Choice Scholarship Program is a voucher scheme that takes public school money and gives it to parents to use at select private schools.
As interesting as all this high court drama will be to watch unfold, it strikes me that there is an unquestioned assumption behind this, and other, voucher approaches that needs to be critically examined. The assumption is that private schools are better than public schools.
But, what if that is not the case?
In their recent work, “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” Christopher and Sarah Lubianski (two university researchers from Illinois) examined this question by looking at national testing data. They found that when test scores do not account for student background, private schools do indeed score higher. However, when they took student background into account, “the study demonstrates that demographic differences between students in public and private schools more than account for the relatively high raw scores of private schools,” and “after controlling for these differences, the presumably advantageous ‘private school effect’ disappears, and even reverses in most cases.”
More directly, once affluence is statistically accounted for, public schools are as good as, or better, than private schools.
Going deeper, a longitudinal study using testing data from 1988-2000 that looked specifically at high schools found similar results. Columbia University researcher Harold Wenglinsky determined, when family background was taken into account, that students enrolled in independent private high schools, most parochial schools, public magnets or “choice” schools did not perform any better than students in traditional public high schools. Wenglinsky also found that students who attended private schools were no more likely to go to college, did not report higher job satisfaction at age 26 than their public school counterparts and graduates from private and public schools differed little in civic engagement.
International results tell a similar tale. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees and conducts the largest international testing system (known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA) found little differences in achievement once socio-economic factors were considered.
Here in our community, we are fortunate to have quality public, private, religious and charter school options as choices. Families may choose options other than public schools for any number of reasons, including family traditions and religious convictions. Preserving these options for families is important, and our community should be proud and supportive of all its schools.
But, it would be an empirically unfounded leap to conclude private or charter options were “better” than any public school as a rule. When this unexamined leap is coupled with a voucher scheme that diverts public school dollars into private schools, it is, in effect, the dismantling of the public school system.
For some, the complete dismantlement and destruction of the American public education system is the real ultimate end being pursued. But know that this is a politically and ideologically motivated end — not one supported by evidence or in keeping with our traditions of a democratic society.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.