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by Marc Jampole
I’M NOT SURE if it was the author or the headline writer, but someone in the New York Times produced a headline that certainly constitutes false news: “Dismal Results from Vouchers Surprise Researchers.” What surprise? Researchers who have been paying attention already know that public policy driving families to put their children into private schools will achieve dismal results. Perhaps Kevin Carey, who wrote the article, or the unknown specialist who composed the headline, meant to say that the results surprised rightwing policy wonks and political pundits, who for the better part of a quarter of a century have been pushing vouchers, charter and private schools as a means to destroy teachers’ unions and produce new income streams for businesses.
Certainly Carey, who directs the education policy program for the ostensibly non-partisan think tank New America, must have read The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, a 2013 study by Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher A. Lubienski that demonstrates without a doubt that public schools outperform private schools when we correct raw data to account for wealth, per student spending, disabilities, and other factors. I wouldn’t expect the Times headline writer to know of this important book (a Google search revealed just one review in the mainstream media), as the media generally don’t like to review books that disprove the current political nonsense, whatever it is.
Using two recently generated large-scale national databases, the Lubienskis show that demographic factors such as wealth and disabilities explain any advantage seen in private school performance in the 21st century. Private schools have higher scores not because they are better at educating children but because their students come mostly from wealthy backgrounds. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis demonstrate conclusively that gains in student achievement at public schools are great, and greater than those made at private ones. The Lubienskis take on the critics of real educational reform, the politicians and other factotums of the rich who don’t want to do anything that requires greater spending on students, such as teacher certification programs and curriculum and instruction advances. The Lubienskis show that these reforms do work.
THE LATEST RESEARCH reported by Carey in his Times article concerns the results of standardized testing of students who have used voucher programs to enroll in private schools. Vouchers, which right-wingers and Republicans have been pushing for years, give money earmarked for public education to families, which they pay to private schools to educate their children. The never-proved principle underlying vouchers, first proposed by rightwing economic mountebank Milton Friedman, is that giving parents choice will improve public education by forcing it to compete with other schools.
Over the past few years, Republican legislatures have implemented widespread voucher programs in a number of states such as Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio. As Carey reports, vouchers have largely failed to improve school performance, and in fact, have harmed the performance of many children:
- Indiana children who transferred to private schools using vouchers “experienced significant losses in achievement” in math and saw no improvement in reading.
- Children, primarily poor and black, who used vouchers to switch to private schools in Louisiana, achieved negative results in both reading and math; elementary school children who started at the 50th percentile in math and then transferred via voucher to a private school dropped to 26th percentile in one year.
- A study financed by the rightwing, anti-union Walton family and conducted by a conservative think tank found that Ohio students using vouchers to attend private schools fared much worse when compared to their peers in public school, especially in math.
- It turns out that the best charter schools, another variation on school choice liked by the right wing, are those that are nonprofit public schools open to everyone and accountable to public authorities. The more “private” a charter school, the worse its student perform.
THERE COULD BE many explanations for the lousy performance voucher students in private schools achieved compared to public schools, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that the teachers tend to be more experienced, more educated and more professional in public schools. Why is that? Because they are better paid.
In the real world, the best get paid the most. The best lawyers tend to make the most money. The best accountants tend to make the most money. The best writers -- business and entertainment -- tend to make the most money. The best musicians tend to make the most money. Forget the obscene fact that Beyoncé makes about 200 times what the concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic and the masterful jazz pianist Orrin Evans do. They both do quite well when compared to the average piano teacher who gives lessons at the Jewish community center or YMCA.
Public school teachers make more money than private school teachers. Doesn’t it make sense that they would therefore do a better job and that public schools would therefore do better in quantitative comparisons? I know that there are some very competent and dedicated private school teachers, but in general, how could the aggregate of private school teachers keep up with public school teachers, who make so much more money?
The reason that public school teachers make more money is one of the primary reasons right-wingers want to dismantle public schools: unions. Rightwingers hate unions because they force employers to pay better wages to employees, leaving less profit for the company’s owners and operators. In unionized workplaces, employees make a far larger share of the pie than in non-unionized ones. Thus by leaving public schools and going into private ones, children leave an environment in which their teachers are highly paid but administrators make less than they would in the private sector for an environment in which teachers are paid less and administrators more, and if the school is for-profit, money is siphoned off as profit for investors. By definition, less money is spent on education in private schools. That is, unless the tuition is so high that the voucher covers only a small part of it, in which case the voucher is merely a subsidy to the wealthy, who likely would have sent their children to the chichi expensive private school no matter what.
The reason companies bust unions is greed. Greed also plays a major role in the insistence against all facts and reasoning that school choice will solve every educational challenge. Choice is the preferred answer because it doesn’t involve spending more money and raising taxes. In fact, over time, vouchers can be used to cut educational budgets if the stipulated voucher amounts do not keep up with inflation.
Despite the fact that taxes on the wealthy are still at an historic low for a Western industrial democracy, rich folk and their political and policy factotums do not want to raise the taxes needed to create an educational system that works for everyone. Here are some of the things that we could do with added tax revenues earmarked to public education:
- Smaller classroom sizes for elementary and middle school children.
- Computers for every student in every class.
- A return to the days of art, music and other enrichment programs.
- New textbooks that reflect the latest findings in science and social science.
- More special programs for both the disabled and the gifted and talented.
- True school choice, which involves vocational programs in the technology, hospitality and healthcare industries for high school students.
Keeping their taxes low and busting unions are not the only reasons well-heeled, ultra-conservatives advocate for vouchers. Some, like our current Secretary of Education, hope to profit by investing in for-profit schools. Others, and again Secretary DeVos is among them, want to use public funds to finance the teaching of religion in private religious schools. Perhaps not ironically, moral education of the masses and suppression of unions seem always to go hand-in-hand since the industrial revolution of the 19th century. In this sense, religion is a form of social control and a social solvent that dissolves the perception of class differences.
Thus, when you hear Trumpty-Dumpty, DeVos and other supporters of voucher programs for education spout their pious homilies, remember that they have absolutely no interest in providing our children with a high-quality education that prepares for a meaningful life and rewarding career. Nor are they dedicated to a higher principle they call freedom that trumps all other concerns in a free society. Remember, there are all kinds of freedoms, such as freedom from hunger, from ignorance, from illness, from pain. Be it education or healthcare, when they cry freedom, they only mean freedom of choice or freedom to make money unencumbered by social concerns.
No, it’s neither an interest in America’s children nor dedication to principle that motivates the rich folk behind the school choice movement. It’s simple greed.
Marc Jampole is author of Music from Words (Bellday Books, for sale at our Pushcart). A former television reporter, he is a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, blogs regularly (“OpEdge”) at our website, and writes frequently for our magazine.