Thursday, August 03, 2006

Journal-Sentinel: Sensible Editorial on School Choice

Anti-school choice liberals have been touting a new study by the federal government that claims to show that private schools are no better than public schools. This, they assert, shows that school choice is a bad idea.

One has to be careful about accepting the results of any one study. There is, after all, Newton’s Third Law of the Social Sciences which says that for every study there is an equal and opposite study.

The current one, for example, flatly contradicts a large scale, very competently executed study by Prof. James Coleman in the 1980s.

But even if we take this study at face value, it hardly justifies doing away with school choice. The Journal-Sentinel observes:
But [the study deals with] private vs. public schools in the nation as a whole - and in just one study. The findings say little about private vs. public schools in a single big city, like Milwaukee, and say even less about the merits of the city’s private school choice program, whereby low-income parents get publicly financed vouchers redeemable for tuition at private schools.

Whether private or public schools are better here is mostly a matter of conjecture right now. And even were they on the whole academically equal, the choice program still opens up a whole new set of opportunities for poor parents who feel the public schools their children attend are failing to meet their needs. Without the program, such parents would be stuck with the unfulfilling schools.
Expanded choice, in other words, is a gain even if the additional choices are, on average, not better than the existing few. The new choices increase the probability that any particular student will find a school that is good for him or her.

It’s also good to remember the old dictum that a statistician is a fellow who, if he has one foot on a hot stove, and the other in a bucket of ice water will say “on average, I’m comfortable.”

Thus if there are a lot of suburban public schools in affluent communities where privileged kids peform very well, this will push up the average attainment of public schools. But this can be cold comfort for kids in dysfunctional central city schools.

Small scale studies, in which students are either randomly assigned to voucher schools or (if they lose a lottery) stay in public schools, show mixed results. But the range of results varies between “no difference” and “voucher schools are superior.”

There is, in other words, virtually no evidence that access to private schools makes anybody any worse off.

Finally, private schools show a robust advantage in terms of parental satisfaction. It’s not entirely clear what this means, but there are probably all kinds of intangible ways in which private schools are better -- or at least better fit the particular child’s needs.


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