Public vs. Private School Debate: Are Vouchers Really Worth It?

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Lately I have been getting a lot of spam on school vouchers, both for and against. As much as I am interested in the issue, I really don't like it when people kill trees to leave stuff on my front door. But it does show the importance of the issue of school vouchers, and how much both sides are dedicated to getting their way.

I've blogged in the past about the school voucher system as was passed by the State Legislature, with both the flaws and the benefits. But that is just looking at the funding, legality, and requirements set by the State. I have also seen the video as suggested by Jordan Gunderson in his blog, but I want everyone watching that to keep in mind that sensational journalism (i.e. yellow journalism) is there for the shock value, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

The core question here is whether or not there is real benefit to students entering private vs. public schools. That's the question that most pro-voucher organizations have not addressed, assuming that the school system in private schools are superior due to higher graduation rates. Anti-voucher organizations say it's because the same level of funding is not available for public schools, and that's the only problem.

So, I thought I would do what most people seem not to do when they come to a problem: Check the research. Because of the national attention the school voucher system is getting, it was quite easy to find some scholarly records both for and against vouchers, based on hard research. I will be looking at two in this blog, but if you are interested in viewing them all, I highly recommend you do a search in Google Scholar.

Educational Vouchers: Effectiveness, Choice, and Costs Henry M. Levin, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 17, No. 3, P. 373

Henry M. Levin asks three questions:
1. Will vouchers improve student achievement?
2. Who will choose and what are the education consequences?
3. What is the evidence on comparative costs of public vs. private schools and on the costs of a voucher system?

Now, in the article, Levin also points out that he has been a proponent for vouchers in the past, outlining the benefits of a voucher experiment in inner-city areas. But he also has pointed out that with the private benefits of vouchers, there is a social cost based on greater inequality and further deterioration of a common educational experience. So, now knowing his bias, he begins to outline the answers that he found based on the above three questions.

1. Will vouchers improve student achievement?
First, a disclaimer (which I find very significant): Levin outlines that controls are very difficult, because in making the choice between a private or public school the family willing to make the decision is very educationally minded, while most families that do not consider the decision are not. Family orientation on education has a huge impact on student success in any classroom. More on that point later. ^_^

The first study was made by Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore (1982) comparing Catholic private schools with public schools at the 10th grade level. Their findings saw slightly higher achievement in the private school sector (0.12 to 0.29 deviation points). Note that the standard deviation for any survey or statistical sample is generally between 0.05 to 0.008 (for highly rigorous statistical analysis). This should give you an idea of the degree of deviation. It was then quickly criticized, and a new study was conducted, as outlined by Goldberger and Cain in 1982. When Willms made adjustments for the statistical problems, the private school advantages were greatly reduced or eliminated.

The next evaluation, the Longitudinal results for students through their sophomore to senior years, found 0.1 as the standard deviation in achievement as an advantage. It resulted in only a 10 point increase in the SAT scores, which is not very significant. There was also an achievement overlap that gave 46% of public schools higher scores than private schools.

Levin then sites more recent statistical studies that have found no differences in achievement, or only minimal differences with comparable students in both private and public schools. His final word? There is no real benefit to private schools over public schools as far as achievement is concerned. The real impact came from school stability. Students moving from school to school tend to fair worse, while their peers who remained in the same schools tend to fair better. Did it matter which school? Not at all. Students in stable social environments within public schools were just as successful as stable students in private schools. That being said, parents do seem to have a higher satisfaction rate with their students in a private school than a public school, regardless of achievement numbers.

2. Who will choose and what are the education consequences?

Arguments for and against school vouchers argue that vouchers alone will allow for better market competition, and therefore force the education system to reform or perish. Levin argues that families choosing an educational institution are more advantaged both educationally (i.e. they generally have a higher education) and economically than non-choosing families. He also argues that the important criterion for choosers tend to be socioeconomic status of other students based on the more preferred schools, and therefore increases segregation. And finally, it is the peer and contextual effects of the higher socioeconomic students that have positive effects on achievement, which leads to a conclusion that inequalities in educational outcomes are likely to be exacerbated by vouchers.

3. What is the evidence on comparative costs of public vs. private schools and on the costs of a voucher system?

Levin has several arguments regarding costs and a voucher system, but as the arguments both for and against funding have already been extensively gone into with the Utah version of the voucher system his conclusions do not apply much to our situation. Rather, I would prefer if the reader referred to previous blog entries on the financials of vouchers.

School Choice and Student Performance: Are Private Schools Really Better? David N Figlio and Joe A. Stone, Institute for Research on Poverty discussion paper no. 1141-97, 1997

Figlio and Stone teach for the Department of Economics at the University of Oregon, and conducted an analysis on the benefits of public schools and private schools by looking at the previous research and fixing issues with the statistical sampling. The research was done with the question of whether or not there is a real difference between public and private schools, and if the difference was there, why. Their findings were really interesting:

1. Religious (primarily Catholic) Private Schools faired the best for ethnic minorities for education, or for high-income students because they choose more expensive and higher quality schools. But for all other educational options, they were generally equal to or behind public schools.

2. Non-religious private schools do tend to do better, scoring perhaps 29% higher at times. The findings were found, not in the difference in quality, but the different social environment and peer-support groups.

3. Finally, the findings are based on moving a single marginal student into an existing peer group within a private school. Vouchers tend to aggravate the social environment by changing the peer group within private and public schools. That means that achievement could deteriorate in both sectors, impacting the initally low-achieving, low-income students the most.

So, ultimately, the problem is not the quality of the instruction, but the social environment that is built within the school itself. Because most attendees of private schools have motivated parents that take an active interest in their student achievement, those students are more interested in achieving better. At least that is the evidence that I see in the research I have read so far.

So where does this place the whole voucher argument? Honestly, I think it will not have an impact on education one way or another. More money, fewer students? It's all about providing more financial incentive to move students around, and giving blame for educational failure on a system that is there to support the parent, not take the parent's place. In my personal opinion, parents should spend less time blaming the schools for bad grades with kids, and spend more time in their lives.

This is by no means scientific, but my parents were more interested in helping us learn, and teaching us how to learn on our own, than about which school we went to. Perhaps it was because we didn't have Cable, and there wasn't much else to watch but Public Television. Or perhaps it was because we didn't have a video game console. Our past time was discussing historical events, analyzing statements, and learning through experimentation. All without a private school or school vouchers.

So what should we really spend our money on? Perhaps resources for parents, synchronized with school topics. Let's get parents involved without providing segregation along class lines as suggested by Levin.