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New research shows that private schools are contributing to America’s educational woes. Now what are we going to do about it?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – June 6, 2018: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports school vouchers. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A recent report on the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), a school voucher initiative, confirms prior research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of vouchers: Low-income students who attended a private school on a voucher notched significantly lower scores in math than their public school peers. That’s the main takeaway from a newly released, congressionally mandated evaluation of the program.

“Mathematics scores were lower for students two years after they applied to the OSP (by 8.0 percentile points for students offered a scholarship and 10.0 percentile points for students who used their scholarship), compared with students who applied but were not selected for the scholarship,” the report states. Reading scores were also lower but not statistically significant.

Public schools have long been scrutinized. It’s long past time we took a critical look at private schools.

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In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released the immensely influential report “A Nation at Risk,” it called for action to reform the U.S. educational system based on a bedrock of evidence that its public schools were failing.

It surmised: “[T]he ideal of academic excellence as the primary goal of schooling seems to be fading across the board in American education. Thus, we issue this call to all who care about America… America is at risk.”

In his presidential campaign, Reagan threatened to eliminate the Department of Education and promoted prayer in school. Although “A Nation at Risk” documented various inadequacies in public education, the report largely appealed for increased federal involvement so Reagan wouldn’t abolish it. Thus, public schools under the DOE’s auspices bore the brunt of the demand for reform. They certainly deserve scrutiny as they educate the vast majority of students — but not all.

Today, private schools represent 25 percent of all schools but educate 10 percent of all U.S. students, according to the Council for American Private Education, an advocacy group for private schools. Since the 1983 report, private schools have been spared from the scrutiny, and choice advocates who promote nontraditional schools have gained momentum. While “A Nation at Risk” recommended a hodgepodge of general reforms such as devoting more time to teaching, increasing the amount of time in school and improving teacher quality, for many reformers, the report was the first declaration to make public schools more like their private counterparts.

Today, private schools represent 25 percent of all schools but educate 10 percent of all U.S. students

In 1989, a few years after the report was issued, the state of Wisconsin passed the nation’s first voucher program, making the reformers’ dream into a reality. School vouchers are coupons that parents in public schools can exchange for tuition at a participating private school.

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But in the past four decades, research on school voucher programs suggests a loud alarm is warranted among private schools. Obviously, there are some great private schools, but the rash of negative reports on those that accept vouchers should more than raise eyebrows; they should prompt action. The nation is put at greater risk when we expose our children to failing schools.

In Louisiana, one of the lowest-performing states in the country for education, findings from an analysis of the state’s voucher program performed by the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University showed its voucher program “had a negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement in the first two years of its operation, most clearly in math.” In another study, on Indiana’s voucher program, the largest in the nation, researchers from the University of Kentucky and University of Notre Dame found that participating students declined in mathematics performance after attending a private school when compared with public school students. Similarly, findings from the conservative think tank the Fordham Institute also found that students who participated in the voucher program in Ohio to attend a private school performed worse than students in public schools, especially in math.

Advocates, opponents and researchers of voucher programs quibble about different features that may be influencing the negative results, including different academic programs in public versus private schools, in which students would naturally have different outcomes. Demographic differences are scrutinized; families and students that participate are lower-performing to begin with. Others will say that the schools that participate in voucher programs are inferior to private schools that don’t accept vouchers or other public schools. I, however, believe that vouchers subsidize low-performing schools that parents wouldn’t have chosen in the absence of the program. Either way, consistent negative findings should prompt the question: What’s wrong with private schools?

There’s certainly enough evidence to prompt a new national commission to find out. We need our own “A Nation at Risk” to investigative failing private schools and recommend strategies to improve them. Accountability shouldn’t be a value for public schools alone.

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped build many of the flailing voucher programs that have been proven harmful to children.

The problem is the biggest champion of vouchers currently is the Secretary of Education. Prior to serving in the Trump administration, Betsy DeVos was chair of the voucher advocacy organizations the American Federation for Children (the lobbying arm) and the American Federation for Children Growth Fund (the nonprofit). Through those organizations, DeVos sponsored and advocated for more than two dozen programs (vouchers and tax-credits) in 26 states and the District of Columbia. In other words, she helped build many of the flailing voucher programs that have been proven harmful to children.

For so long, we’ve just assumed private to be better. Because private schools don’t have to release academic data, the general public can’t really confirm how private schools are performing (at least, until a report comes out). Private schools have also benefited from the misguided perception that exclusivity equates to quality. But private schools have certain advantages that have nothing to do with being superior, and everything to do with being more selective. For instance, they can screen out certain students, unlike public schools that are mandated to accept students who live in the “zone” for that school. They can also hoard academically stronger students — those who would do well in either public or private school. Having an effective filter doesn’t make the teachers any better or the lessons more rigorous. Likewise, schools with a high concentration of low-income kids can have great teachers and lessons (or not).

A lack of transparency in private schools can cover some problems. And so can federal appointees. DeVos has an obligation to put an end to the practice of subsidizing bad private schools that take advantage of parents’ desperation for choice. Clearly, more choices don’t mean you have better ones.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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