Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

Not All Private Schools Are Created Equal

By Bruce D. Baker — August 19, 2009 6 min read

Voucher advocates in the nation’s capital have made a fairness argument in their appeal to Democratic legislators. How, they ask, can you deny the city’s poor children the options available to wealthier parents? They point, in particular, to President Barack Obama’s decision to send his daughters to Washington’s Sidwell Friends School, a private independent school that charges approximately $30,000 per year.

But does a voucher policy like the District of Columbia’s bring impoverished students any closer to Sidwell Friends or the other schools chosen by Washington’s elite for their children?

Five years ago, private school vouchers were hailed as the magic potion for curing all that ailed the inner-city school systems serving the nation’s historically disadvantaged students. Following voucher experiments in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and across Florida, Congress heeded the wishes of the Bush administration and introduced “choice” for students attending public schools in the District of Columbia. The district’s federally funded school voucher program promised children there the opportunity to leave behind the inequities of the public schools for the quality and opportunity that only private schools could supposedly provide.

This was a false promise, but perhaps not for the reasons most voucher opponents cite. While it is true that the D.C. voucher effort has shown minimal effectiveness in improving student outcomes and policymakers now are winding down that experiment, the question of unreasonable expectations for such policies remains. And answers may lie in our assumptions about the private school sector.

It would be silly (and factually unsupportable) to claim that private education necessarily means better education. While elite places like Sidwell Friends really do provide wonderful resources and opportunities, is there any reason to assume that this is representative of other private schools? In fact, as choices were made in D.C., we saw that most voucher students were still unable to choose the sorts of private schools that educate the children of presidents, senators, and CEOs. The vouchers provided a different education, but not necessarily a better one.

This suggests the primary reason we have not seen the transformation and revolution that school choice advocates have long promised from voucher programs. Just as is the case with public education, spending on private schools varies greatly by state, city, and neighborhood. In fact, private schools’ spending varies even more widely than that of their public school brethren—exactly what one might expect of a less-regulated sector. Those variations have very real implications when it comes to quality teachers, quality instruction, and true school improvement.

For a report released this week, “Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications,” I took a close look at the financial and enrollment information for some 1,500 private schools nationally. Combining that data with information collected by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed some sobering statistics on the true state of school finance in the United States. Importantly, the study looked at actual expenditures, not tuition. It compared apples to apples, examining the financial resources brought to bear at different types of schools.

For the years studied, on average, private independent day schools spent nearly twice as much as public schools in the same labor market, Hebrew schools spent 75 percent more, Catholic schools slightly less, and Christian Association schools about half as much. Actual dollar amounts varied widely by region. In New York City, in 2007 nominal dollars, independent day schools spent more than $30,000 per pupil, and Hebrew schools more than $18,000. The average spending for metro-area public schools was approaching $17,000 per pupil. In Atlanta, private independent day schools (the second-largest provider in the region) again spent nearly twice as much per pupil as public schools, but conservative Christian schools (the region’s largest provider) spent about the same as public schools.

Nationally the 1,500 private schools evaluated do spend more per pupil than public schools. But that average is skewed by the expenditures of those independent schools so few disadvantaged students will ever see. At the Catholic and Christian schools prominent in “school choice” communities like Milwaukee and the District of Columbia, per-student spending is actually less than in comparable public schools. Spending was marginally less in the few Catholic schools filing federal tax returns, and substantially less in Christian schools. Admittedly, part of that difference between public schools and lower-spending private schools can be attributed to the special education resources required by law in public schools. But the new research found that part is also due to such key schooling features as teacher qualifications and class size.

The disparity on spending relates logically to other recent studies of student outcomes in private schools. The ranking of school sectors by average spending correlates well with rankings of those sectors by average standardized-test scores. While these other studies did not examine high-spending private independent schools, they found that performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for other private school subgroups appears to decline, on average, as spending declines. Catholic schools spend comparably and perform comparably to public schools, and conservative Christian schools, which spend much less, also perform much less well on NAEP assessments, when applying appropriate statistical controls.

Why is private school cost so important in today’s era of public school reform, turnaround, and improvement? The data show that dollars do indeed matter, and that voucher policies do not realistically encompass the higher-performing types of private school. Low per-pupil expenditures typically translate into poorer teacher undergraduate preparation, lower teacher salaries, higher pupil-to-teacher ratios, and, ultimately, to weaker student proficiency.

While the future of school vouchers is still uncertain, this research makes clear that attending a private school does not automatically mean attending a better school, a more (or less) expensive school, or a more efficient school. Students taking their vouchers to Christian Association schools, for example, are generally getting higher pupil-to-teacher ratios and less-qualified teachers. And Catholic schools appear to be similar to publics. Using vouchers to take students out of struggling public schools, and putting them into private schools with the same or fewer key resources, is hardly the intent of the law or the promise offered by voucher advocates across the nation.

It would be terrific if every at-risk student who is provided a school voucher were able to use it at the top independent school in his or her community. But such wishes do not line up with modern-day educational realities. With per-pupil spending varying so widely by private school type, and with so many voucher students being funneled to those schools at the low end of the spending pool, we continue to deny students the “better” choice promised to them.

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