Echidne, Steve and Mahablog have already effectively covered this Times story about a new government study about public and private schools. There are two stories here: 1)the differences between the two are modest, and public schools actually outperform conservative Christian schools in many respects, and 2)the administration of course buried this study on a Friday.
Maha also brings up the data about voucher programs, which is an interesting question. There is, first of all, a constitutional question raised by vouchers. My position is that I don’t think there’s any necessary violation of the First Amendment inherent in voucher programs, even if some parents will inevitably use this money to choose parochial schools. The Cleveland program upheld by the Supreme Court in Zelman, however, is a different story. As Souter’s brilliant dissent pointed out in painstaking detail, 96.6% of the voucher money went to parochial schools, and this was an inevitable consequence of vouchers being set at a financial level that made subsidized parochial schools the only viable option for most eligible families. Voucher programs that offer a genuine choice between secular and parochial schools might be constitutional; but this program offered a “choice” in only the emptiest, most formal sense. (The program is also structured in a way that undermines the market justifications for such programs–surely setting up a competition to benefit poor families would allow them to choose between a secular and religious education as well as private and public.) Either cities (perhaps with the help of the feds) should finance vouchers at a level that would involve genuine choice, or they are violating the Establishment Clause.
But leaving aside the constitutional questions, what’s the evidence that the programs work? Justice Thomas compares the importance of Zelman to Brown and cites Frederick Douglass on the emancipatory potential of education, but is that what’s at stake here? That doesn’t seem to be the case:
It’s increasingly clear that a disturbing number of voucher schools are outright abominations.
An investigation this June by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found problems in some voucher schools that—even to those numb to educational horror stories—break one’s heart. No matter how severe one’s criticisms of the Milwaukee Public Schools, nothing is as abysmal as the conditions at some voucher schools.
Some of them had high school graduates teaching students. Some were nothing more than refurbished, cramped storefronts. Some did not have any discernable curriculum and only a few books. Some did not teach evolution or anything else that might conflict with a literal interpretation of the Bible.
At one school, teacher and students were on their way to McDonald’s. At another, lights were turned off to save money. A third used the back alley as a playground.
One school is located in an old leather factory, another in a former tire store, a third is above a vacuum cleaner shop and hair salon.
As one of the reporters said, “I think we expected from the start to see some strong schools and some weak ones. But seeing firsthand the effect that troubled schools can have on children’s futures and lives was disturbing.”
Overall, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel estimated that about 10 percent of the schools visited demonstrate “alarming deficiencies” without “the ability, resources, knowledge or will to offer children even a mediocre education.”
That’s a cautious estimate. First of all, reporters made pre-arranged visits, giving schools time to put their best faces forward. Second, nine of the program’s 115 schools —an additional 8 percent—refused to allow reporters in
(In addition, more than 70% of the money in this program goes to religious schools. The week-long study also notes the obvious: parents are not necessarily informed consumers, and will sometimes pick bad schools. And in some sense, this is necessary, because until struggling school systems become a Lake Woebegone where highly skilled teachers, administrators, and other resources are infinite somebody has to attend bad schools.)
Essentially, the idea that voucher schools inevitably produce better results is a matter of blind faith (“The lack of research and data is stunning.”) Of course, one can argue that there’s no reason that a voucher program needs to be as badly designed as Milwuakee’s, and that may be true. But attempts to introduce “competition” are overwhelmingly likely to be at best marginal tinkering that will do little to solve underlying problems.
UPDATE: In response to a comment, I should clarify that I’m not arguing–and Souter (and Breyer‘s) dissents, as I read them, are not arguing–that the Court should select an arbitrary cut-off point past which the percentage of money going to parochial schools is unconstitutional. Even 97% of the money going to religious schools is not, in and of itself, proof that no substantive choice of a secular school is available for most parents, although evidently this makes it much more likely than if it was 40%. The point is simply that the court has to investigate a program’s structure and the available options carefully and evaluate whether parents have a real choice to use their vouchers to attend secular schools, or if the program is structured in the way to ensure that there is a real choice. I do think that (for better or worse) the Establishment Clause requires more than relying on the flimsy tautology that creating vouchers ipso facto provides parents with choice to spend their money as they see fit.
UPDATE THE SECOND: I also think Matt makes a good point here: hoping that some magic-bullet educational reform can address problems of inequality and injustice is not a plan, and indeed gets things backward. You would almost certainly improve educational outcomes by making society more egaliatarian much more so than vice versa. Relatedly, I think it’s also worth emphasizing the point made by Stevens in his Zelman dissent:
First, the severe educational crisis that confronted the Cleveland City School District when Ohio enacted its voucher program is not a matter that should affect our appraisal of its constitutionality. In the 1999—2000 school year, that program provided relief to less than five percent of the students enrolled in the district’s schools. The solution to the disastrous conditions that prevented over 90 percent of the student body from meeting basic proficiency standards obviously required massive improvements unrelated to the voucher program. Of course, the emergency may have given some families a powerful motivation to leave the public school system and accept religious indoctrination that they would otherwise have avoided, but that is not a valid reason for upholding the program.
Even if vouchers worked–and as far as I can tell, there’s pretty much no evidence that they do–at any plausible level of funding they would still be grossly inadequate to address the problems of a severely deficient educational system.