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Published in Print: November 29, 2006, as The Wrong Debate


The Wrong Debate

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Once again, we have been treated to a debate over the meaning and policy implications of research comparing the performance of students in public schools and private schools. The latest focus is a report by the National Center for Education Statistics that offers an analysis of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress using hierarchical linear modeling to control for selected characteristics of students and schools. ("NCES Calls for Sticking to the Stats," Aug. 30, 2006.)

The justification for private schools and charter schools is not that they produce superior academic results, but that millions of parents want them.

Some tout the report as evidence that public schools are comparable to private schools, while other well-regarded researchers have replied that the data prove no such thing. They point out what seem, to a lay reader, to be fundamental flaws in the methodology of the study and remind us that valid research on this question must follow randomly selected individual pupils over time, rather than rely upon one-time “snapshots” of currently enrolled pupils.

No doubt the critics will themselves be criticized, and the argument will go on, as it has in the decades since the late James S. Coleman and his colleagues concluded that Catholic high schools were more effective than corresponding public schools in reducing the achievement gap between black and white youths.

But the current status of this recurring debate is of only limited relevance. If it could be shown that particular private schools (for they come in even more shapes and flavors than public schools do) were providing a clearly inadequate education, it would of course be important for parents to be aware of that fact and—in extreme cases—for public officials to intervene to protect the children involved. What is striking is how seldom such interventions are needed, in what is a largely unregulated sector of education. We could ask why, given that on average private schools spend much less per pupil than public schools, they produce by any analysis roughly comparable results.

But that’s not my purpose here. I want, instead, to suggest that the justification for private schools and charter schools is not that they produce superior academic results, so long as their quality is adequate by some objective standard, but that millions of parents want them. In a free society, parents have a right to choose the schools that their children will attend and (within broad limits) the sort of education that they will receive. This right has been asserted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in 1948: “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” A later document, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, from 1966, says the following:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents … to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

Since Americans often dismiss such international obligations as irrelevant, it should be noted that, in its 1925 decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the U. S. Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law requiring all children to attend public schools until completion of the 8th grade, finding that:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

Parents have a right to choose, and they do so for countless different reasons. Comparing average scores on standardized tests in an entire sector made up of thousands of schools is seldom their primary concern, nor should it be. After all, they want to know whether their children will flourish and be challenged in a particular school, whether the staff of that school will care about their children and will want for them much the same things that the parents themselves want.

I have seven children, all of whom received at least their first six or seven years of schooling in the Boston public schools, a choice we made in part because I was the state official in Massachusetts responsible for urban education and civil rights. Most of my children also received part of their schooling in independent or evangelical or Catholic or international schools: So far, they have attended nine different public schools and nine different nonpublic schools. French sociologists call that “zapping”—the movement of children and youths between sectors as their parents seek each year to decide what will be best for them—and have found that about half of all French families engage in it in response to the needs of their children and their own convictions.

This is one reason why research that simply compares sectors, without taking into account the enormous variation within each and the complex motivations that result in a 12-year-old’s being in one or another sector of schools at a particular moment, can tell us very little that is useful for public policy.

The central public-policy issue is not whether district or charter or independent or faith-based schools in the aggregate have somewhat better results. It is how we can protect the autonomy of individual schools in any of those sectors, while at the same time ensuring that every child receives an adequate and appropriate education. After all, the freedom of parents to choose schools that represent real alternatives depends upon the distinctiveness of the schools available.

It also depends, of course, upon the financial ability of parents to enroll their children in schools other than those assigned to them by bureaucratic fiat. Much of the policy debate has been about how to ensure that the limited resources of many families do not prevent them from exercising their right to choose the schools their children will attend. It is important to consider how educational freedom can be guaranteed, as it is in virtually all other Western democracies, by some form of public funding for the schools that parents select. So we debate vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter or magnet schools, and other administrative arrangements. And that is an important discussion.

But there is a second issue of equal importance: whether under such arrangements schools will be permitted to be distinctive. This is a question of the design of regulatory frameworks, the conditions attached to funding, the ways in which accountability for academic and (perhaps) other outcomes takes into account the specific educational project of schools that differ in some way from the typical. In a study of more than 40 countries, my colleague Jan De Groof and I have identified a number of ways that policymakers elsewhere have found to protect the distinctiveness of schools, while at the same time ensuring that they meet clear and appropriate standards. It is not easy, but it can be done.

Whether schools will be distinctive is another question, and depends to a large extent upon whether the teachers and administrators, the board members and parents, work at it consistently. It is a common phenomenon for faith-based schools, for example, as they raise their academic standards to match those of the best independent schools, to drift into simply reflecting the norms prevalent in the wider society. When that happens, the supply of distinctive schools is narrowed, and the chance of matching what a family is looking for is limited.

Public policy cannot prevent such loss of focus, but it can ensure that government is not, overtly or subtly, threatening or bribing schools to lose the flavor that makes them distinctive, satisfies families, and provides students with a focused and coherent education.

Vol. 26, Issue 13, Pages 31-32

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