A Studied Opinion

October 01, 1998 8 min read

The atmosphere in Paul Peterson’s Harvard University office is tranquil, almost serene. Footsteps echo down the corridor, and students saunter past his window. But then, the eye of a hurricane is supposed to be calm. If any scholar is at the center of a political storm these days, it is this professor of political science with the dry Minnesota wit. Wherever there is debate over the effectiveness of school choice, Peterson is usually at the heart of it.

In Milwaukee, he engaged in a verbal slugfest over the state-funded voucher experiment with the researcher appointed to evaluate the program. In Cleveland, he was at it again, attacking the official evaluation of the state-financed choice program there. In New York City, San Antonio, the District of Columbia, and Dayton, Ohio, architects of privately supported choice plans have asked Peterson to evaluate their efforts.

Wherever Peterson has gone, he and his colleagues have come to the same conclusion: Private school choice works. Students in such programs, his studies have found, fare better academically than students who attend the public schools to which they are assigned.

His findings have endeared him to voucher advocates hungry for the credibility that his name and his Ivy League affiliation bring. But some opponents of such programs, as well as more independently minded education researchers, suggest that Peterson’s enthusiasm for vouchers creeps into his work.

“There’s no question that he’s a passionate advocate for vouchers,” says Henry Levin, a Stanford University professor of education and economics who sits with Peterson on a committee evaluating the Cleveland program. “And that certainly dominates his perspective on these evaluations.”

Critics also attack Peterson’s penchant for bypassing scholarly journals to make his case on the opinion pages of newspapers, and some have questioned the conservative sources of some of his funding.

His supporters, however, say he is being demonized. “It’s sort of painful to see Paul taking potshots from people who question his integrity and think of him as a kind of huckster when he is a scholar held in the highest repute by political scientists,” says Terry Moe, a Stanford scholar whose 1989 book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, written with John Chubb, helped propel the current movement for private school choice.

Peterson’s résumé includes a long list of scholarly achievements, and his 1981 book about urban politics, City Limits, was named the best book of the year by the American Political Science Association. The 57-year-old researcher rejects the notion that he is anything but a serious academic. If the criticism is sharp, Peterson says, it’s because the stakes are high. “When people address important topics, they are inevitably criticized.”

Vouchers, of course, are one of the most politically charged issues in education. And many researchers worry that outside pressures are interfering with Peterson’s scholarship. “Even when he has limited data, he’s always squeezing out whatever data he can to arrive at a predetermined answer,” contends Bruce Fuller, a researcher from the University of California at Berkeley who has written critically of voucher plans.

For his part, Peterson says he was more of a skeptic than an advocate when he first looked at statistics coming out of Milwaukee, where a pioneering voucher initiative created by the Wisconsin legislature to serve poor children was launched in 1990. The official state-commissioned study, conducted by John Witte, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, compared students in the choice program with regular Milwaukee public school students. Though parents in the program gave it high marks, Witte found that students using the vouchers to attend private schools did no better on tests than their public-sector peers did.

Paul E. Peterson

Position: Henry Lee Shattuck professor of government and director, Program on Educational Policy and Governance, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Age: 57

Current residence: Wellesley, Mass.

Education: Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., B.A., 1962; University of Chicago, M.A. in political science, 1964, and Ph.D. in political science, 1967.

Other career posts: Director of governmental studies for the Brookings Institution, Washington, 1983-87; professor of political science and education, University of Chicago, 1967-83.

Personal: Married to Carol Peterson. Three children, ages 24 to 27.

But after Peterson looked at the study’s design, he came up with what he believed was a better control group: students who by the luck of the draw did not get into the private schools of their choice and as a result remained in public schools. Parents of those students, he surmised, would be just as motivated for their children to succeed.

But when Peterson tried to do that analysis, Witte would not immediately share the data, citing state-imposed restrictions on access, privacy considerations, and other concerns. That led to a bitter feud between the two men that endures.

“It obviously went well beyond an academic exchange,” Witte says. “He and several other voucher supporters have attacked me personally and constantly misrepresented my appointment as evaluator of the Milwaukee program and my objectivity. And I am afraid that led me to act a bit like them.”

Supporters of Peterson say the personal feud was out of character for him. “Paul doesn’t have a history of this sort of thing,” Moe says, “and I don’t think Witte does either.”

When Peterson and Harvard colleagues Jay Greene and Jiangtao Du finally got a chance to analyze the data in 1995, they reached the opposite conclusion from the one they expected. They found that, after three and four years, the voucher students outperformed their public school counterparts in reading and mathematics.

But those findings were questioned, too, by researchers who pointed out the high attrition rates at the private schools. Were the scores higher because the weaker students were leaving the program?

In an attempt to answer such criticisms, Peterson and his colleagues later revisited the data to explore the question of whether student attrition had skewed the scores. The answer, they determined, was no. What’s more, their positive findings were later echoed by a Princeton University researcher who conducted her own analysis of the Milwaukee program.

Last year, Peterson raised eyebrows again, this time in Cleveland, the site of the first state-funded voucher program to include religious schools. He and Greene, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, released data showing once again that students in the private schools had an academic edge over those in the public schools. There were a couple of catches, though. The scores came from only two of the 55 schools involved in the program, although those schools enrolled 15 percent of all the voucher students. And rather than being retested a full year later, students tested in the fall were tested again in the spring-a practice some researchers found questionable. Peterson has since accounted for that difference and still found the private school students holding a slight edge.

Paul Hill, a University of Washington professor and Peterson supporter, says Peterson’s initial work on the Cleveland program “is not a persuasive study.” But Hill, who has written in support of school choice, remains a proponent of the Harvard scholar’s work. “We do now have an advocacy-oriented debate, and people on the negative side are going to present their case any way they can,” Hill says. “I think Paul is in a position where he has to do the same thing or let the negative information out there go unchallenged.”

Says Peterson: “Some data’s better than no data at all. And that was the only data available on Cleveland for people who wanted to know whether it had been working.”

The debate in Cleveland flared up again earlier this year with the release of the official first-year evaluation of the program. It found no academic differences between the 3rd graders in the program and their counterparts in the city’s public schools. Peterson, part of a group of researchers advising the state evaluators, argued that those findings were suspect, noting among other criticisms that the study included scores for only 94 students.

Kim Metcalf, the Indiana University evaluator who conducted that study, defended the results, but Peterson, still unconvinced, took his argument to newspaper opinion pages and to state policymakers. That tactic irked some researchers, who contend that such disputes are better conducted in research journals or at conferences.

Jay Greene, one of Peterson’s research partners, doesn’t see it that way. “It’s important to continue to release information without going through a lengthy review process when you’re addressing real political issues that occur in real time,” he says.

Then there is the question of Peterson’s benefactors. Fuller of Berkeley takes Peterson to task for financing his work with grants from conservative supporters of voucher experiments, such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation. “That’s like the tobacco companies sponsoring studies on the effects of smoking,” Fuller says.

Peterson denies that his funding sources influence the outcomes of his studies. He admits that his Milwaukee and Cleveland studies were not perfect but insists that they are better than the state-sponsored evaluations.

He is hoping that an evaluation under way in New York City may silence his critics for good. In that city, more than 20,000 applicants competed in a lottery last year for 1,300 privately financed, three-year scholarships to about 215 private schools. That setup, Peterson believes, gives him a chance to do a long-hoped-for randomized experiment, in which enough schools and students will be involved to overcome the problems with the earlier research. The first results are due out this fall.

If he is dogged in his pursuit of the definitive voucher study, Peterson says, it is because the need for drastic action is so pressing. “I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that big-city school systems are in trouble and that something needs to be done,” he says. “Choice is an option out there that needs to be investigated openly, fully, and fairly.”

-Debra Viadero