Private Anxiety

Critics of voucher programs are positively swooning over a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which finds that public school students in 4th and 8th grades score as well or better than their private-school peers.

Based on results from the 2005 NAEP, the findings surprised many because average scores have historically shown private-school students performing far better. But adjust for student characteristics such as gender, race/ethnicity, and English language proficiency, and the gap between public and private almost disappears.

Fourth graders in both systems scored roughly the same in reading. In math, fourth graders in private schools actually did worse than public school students--by 4.5 points. Eighth graders in private schools still performed better in reading by 7.3 points, but ran neck-and-neck with public school students in math.

Teacher unions wasted no time embracing the study. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) web log cited the data as proof that vouchers programs, which give parents public dollars to send their kids to private schools, are a waste of taxpayer money. Ohio Federation of Teachers president Tom Mooney likewise stated, "The point is not to transfer a handful of students from public to private schools…This is further proof that that’s a dead end."

Hyperbole aside, the NCES’s report never addresses the effectiveness of voucher programs. As a broad comparison of public and private schools, it does not examine how voucher recipients perform academically after transferring to a private school. Studies that have (including those recently discussed in John Tierney’s New York Times column) actually reveal improved test scores for voucher recipients.

Yet the report does raise important issues for voucher programs like Ohio’s EdChoice initiative.

The most critical is that all schools that receive taxpayer funding--public or private--should be held accountable for their performance. Private schools in Ohio must administer the Ohio Achievement Tests to voucher recipients, but there is no penalty for schools if students perform poorly--or any formal evaluation of the overall program.

For the parents of the nearly 2,300 students receiving vouchers under Ohio’s EdChoice program, the report underscores the importance of making good choices. In Dayton, parents have My School Chooser, a user-friendly guide created by GreatSchools.net, which lists performance data and information for the city’s many traditional public, charter, and private schools. It also provides a checklist of key criteria for selecting the right school.

In the coming weeks NCES will release its comparison of charter and traditional public school performance. Should the results be mixed, critics will surely decry charter schools as miserable failures, too.

Don’t believe it. If schools cannot provide students an adequate education, parents deserve the option to look elsewhere. With the EdChoice program and a host of charter schools, Ohio’s parents can choose among viable options--not just hope and a prayer.

To read the NCES report, click here.

Check out the GreatSchools.net web site here .

"Republicans Propose National School Voucher Program," by Diana Jean Schemo, The New York Times, July 19, 2006.

"Spinning a Bad Report Card," by John Tierney, The New York Times, July 18, 2006. (subscription required)

"Private Schools Not Inherently Better, National Study Suggests," by Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, July 18, 2006.

"Public Schools on Par With, Outperform Private Schools in Some Areas, Study Says," by Mary Ann Zehr, Education Week, July 18, 2006.

"Public vs. Private " NCLBlog, American Federation of Teachers, July 15, 2006.

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