Study Shows Private Schools May Not Always be the Superior Academic Option

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The ongoing debate over private versus public schooling has come to a head, thanks to the recent attention in Washington. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, along with President Donald Trump and many Republican governors, have increased policy discussion surrounding school vouchers, subsidiaries given to low-income families to go toward private school tuition.

But a recent article in The Economist (Private schools are doing worse in Washington, DC) details how cashing in on these vouchers hasn’t necessarily proven improved academic success in Washington, DC. The district is home to the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, a program that Congress created in 2004 that became the first school-voucher scheme directly subsidised by the federal government, as states and charities subsidise many others.

There are currently 30,861 private schools operating in the United States. They account for 24 percent of schools nationwide and enroll 5.3 million PK-12 students, or 10 percent of all PK-12 students. The motivations for sending children to these institutions over their public counterparts range. For some, these schools offer faith-based education, allowing students to learn about a specific religion along with typical curriculum. But for others, like the low-income families receiving vouchers, being able to send a child to a private school rather than the local public one stems from a desire for (and assumption of) greater academic opportunities and quality of education.

Numbers like those relating to class size support this motivation. Private school classes are notably smaller, with 12.5 students for each teacher compared to 15.4 students in each public school. But this smaller class size shouldn’t necessarily be equated with heightened quality of education or student performance.

In fact, recent studies have shown the opposite. The Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, its research arm, recently analyzed the results of children involved in Washington, DC’s voucher program between 2012 and 2014. They found that on average, student who attended private schools actually scored lower on math assessments at the end of their first year than their public school peers. Likewise, studies in Louisiana and Ohio have found similar results. Students in these states who used a voucher to attend private school did worse on state tests than children at public schools.

Still, test scores alone can’t fully capture the possible benefits of private school education. A 2010 study found that 82% of students offered a voucher went on to graduate from high school, compared with 70% of peers who attended public schools. Data like this suggests that the benefits could stem from more than academics. Being in a smaller, more personalized school environment can offer students the opportunity to better connect to their academic careers, regardless of their assessment numbers. Private schools typically offer greater amenities, like a school library, and can encourage greater success for parts of the population, like student athletes, for example.

But these potential benefits aside, it can’t be denied that the voucher program is hardly a cure-all for low-income students and definitely has its flaws. A recent literature review noted that ?the effects of vouchers have been disappointing relative to early views on their promise?. Rather, it’s perhaps more accurate to view these vouchers as a good option for parents, but not the necessary go-to choice.

It’s important for parents to not focus solely on the top-line differences between private and public, but to research the specific schools available to their child. Recent education reforms, which promote teacher performance, have been successful in improving the quality of education in many public schools, even those in low-income, urban areas.

These strides stem most notably perhaps from progressive policy changes. In Washington, DC, for example, former mayor Adrian Fenty took away powers from the city?s elected board of education and installed a new schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Rhee enacted new measures to make teachers more responsible for student performance and incentivized them for doing so.

So whether your child is about to start preschool or high school, be sure to consider all options. Vouchers allow for both nominal and real benefits based on the specific private school. Similarly, not every public school will score better, like those studied in Washington, DC. Do your research to find the best fit for your child.

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