Study Questions Perceived Benefits of Private Schools

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Whether a school is private or public has little to do with how well it selects and retains good teachers or provides accountability to parents, according to a study of 16 California elementary schools released last week.

The social and economic makeup of the school's student enrollment plays a much greater role in such key educational practices, concludes the report, titled "Can Public Schools Learn From Private Schools?"

The findings challenge some of the assumptions made by proponents of school voucher programs, co-author Martin Carnoy, an education and economics professor at Stanford University, said at a news conference here last week. The other authors are Luis Benveniste, an education specialist at the World Bank, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

"Can Public Schools Learn From Private Schools?" can be ordered for $13.95 plus shipping costs by calling the Economic Policy Institute at (800) 374-4844. It is also available online at

Students who trade in a public education for a private one could well be moving from one average school to another with similar practices, Mr. Carnoy said.

"If you'd not told us we were in a private or public school, we wouldn't have been able to tell," Mr. Rothstein said of the authors' site visits for the study. "We would have been able to tell if we were in a low-income or affluent school."

Red Flags

The researchers examined what they describe as commonly held assumptions about private schools and public schools. Those include, they said, a belief that private school teachers and administrators tend to be more accountable to parents than public school personnel and that private schools have clearer outputs and expectations for students.

The sample included eight public schools and eight private schools of varying socioeconomic levels.

Mr. Rothstein said he found while visiting Roman Catholic schools serving low-income, inner-city families that parents weren't closely involved in their children's education.

"The teachers said they couldn't get parents involved in homework, they couldn't get notes returned that they sent home, they couldn't get parents to help," Mr. Rothstein said. He added that those complaints were echoed in public schools serving poor families.

Meanwhile, at both private and public schools in well-to-do communities, he said, teachers complained about "too much parent involvement--too many parents breathing down their necks telling them how to teach."

Jay P. Greene, an assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who co-wrote an evaluation of the publicly funded Milwaukee voucher program, took issue with the report's conclusions.

Mr. Greene said the sample of 16 schools visited by the three researchers was too small for drawing conclusions about differences in private and public schools.

While no one is claiming that children will automatically improve their education by moving from a public to a private school, he said, evaluations of the Milwaukee program and a privately funded New York City voucher program showed that "students who were given the opportunity to go to a private school by choice outperformed those who didn't."

The 83-page report was co-published by the EPI and the Aspen Institute's Nonprofit Sector Research Fund.

Vol. 19, Issue 6, Page 10

Published in Print: October 6, 1999, as Study Questions Perceived Benefits of Private Schools
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