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Studies suggest public schools do as well, sometimes better, than private

Public schools got some good news this past week in the release of a major statistical study, commissioned by the US Department of Education, that found that public school students performed as well, on average, as students in private schools.
The study is a politically-sensitive one, as drafters of the report have acknowledged, and it was clearly viewed as bad news by the Bush White House, which followed its usual strategy in such cases, by quietly releasing the news without comment or press conference late on a Friday afternoon, when most reporters have left the office for the weekend.

Even so, the newsworthy report did get some media attention, and it was deserved, because it suggests that public schools aren’t doing so badly after all, and are even doing better than some private schools, most notably conservative Christian schools. For the Bush White House and others who support the use of tax dollars to fund private religious schools, the study offers at least a minor setback.

For years, conservatives have railed against “failing” public schools and, especially, teachers’ unions, that they accuse of stifling educational innovation. Conservatives have long pointed to the superior performance of private school students, which is undeniable, as evidence that such schools offer a better approach to education. Those on the other side have long argued that private school students are a self-selected group, one whose parents generally have the means and the interest in education to pay for private schooling. It is no secret that the children of such parents perform better in school, whether in public institutions or private.

The study, which examined test scores for students in fourth and eighth grade, was designed to correct for such self-selection and all of the other demographic differences between students in public and private schools. And when those corrections were made, the differences between public and private school performance all but vanished. The only exceptions were in fourth-grade math, where public school students actually performed better than those in private schools, and in eighth grade reading, where private students performed better. The study also found that students in private Lutheran schools performed above the average, while those in conservative Christian schools performed at the bottom.

The results differed little from another recent study, which found little or no difference in math scores between public and private school students. The findings were also consistent with studies of charter schools, which have been found to provide no detectable difference in academic achievement.

If teachers’ unions were really the problem that conservatives claim, you would expect both private and charter schools to perform better, since most operate outside a union structure and don’t have to meet a number of mandates that regular public schools must. So far, studies have yet to demonstrate that claim.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration took pains to emphasize that studies comparing public and private schools are of little utility and they warned against drawing too many conclusions from the research. But such advice sounds a little ridiculous coming from the administration that ordered the study. It’s probably safe to assume that the White House position would be completely the opposite had the research found that, all things being equal, private schools do a better job.

An administration spokesperson said the study will likely have little impact on policy, which is not surprising coming from a White House that has ignored scientific findings for years. But if education is as important as policymakers across the board like to claim, recent comparisons of public and private schools should at least give everyone pause. Before abandoning a public school system as the dysfunctional institution that conservatives like to claim, perhaps we should know for sure whether anything better actually exists.

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