School Choice & Charters

Public or Private, Study Finds Schools Similar

By Debra Viadero — January 22, 2003 4 min read
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A trio of researchers is offering fresh evidence aimed at puncturing the notion that private schools operate more freely and respond better to their “customers” than do the public schools serving children from the same neighborhoods and income levels.

“We were actually surprised at how few differences we found,” said Luis A. Benveniste, the lead author of the book All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different?, which was released this month by the New York City-based RoutledgeFalmer publishing company. “In the absence of the religious imagery on the walls, it’s really hard to tell whether you’re in a private school or a public school.”

Mr. Benveniste’s co-authors are Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University, and Richard Rothstein, an economist who is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. They base their observations on in-depth studies of 16 public, private, and charter schools for elementary and middle school students in two metropolitan areas in California.

The results are timely and controversial because they raise new questions about policies based on the premise that injecting some marketplace competition into public school systems will improve them. That is a key principle behind the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, the most recent revision of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is designed to allow parents whose children attend persistently failing schools to enroll them in public schools elsewhere.

Terry M. Moe, the Stanford University professor who, with John E. Chubb, wrote Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the 1989 book credited with inspiring much of the ongoing national debate over school choice, was critical of the new findings last week. That earlier book, which was based on data from a nationwide survey of public and private schools, suggested that private schools have more latitude in hiring and firing teachers and fewer bureaucratic constraints than public schools do.

“This flies in the face of everything we know about public and private schools,” Mr. Moe said of the new book. “No conclusions can be drawn with any confidence from such a small sample.”

For their part, the researchers say they make no claims that their work is based on random or even nationally representative samples of schools.

Freedom to Fire?

“We said, ‘OK, let’s look at a wide range of public and private schools to see if they function differently,’” said Mr. Carnoy. “If this was so apparent, then we certainly should have found these differences in the group of schools we looked at.”

Instead, the biggest differences the researchers saw between the schools they studied fell along socioeconomic lines. In other words, private schools serving students from low-income families were more like the public schools serving similar populations than either the private or public schools serving more affluent communities. The same was also true for the better-off private and public schools.

For instance, the researchers found educators in poorer private schools—particularly Roman Catholic schools—had no more latitude than public school educators in the same communities to try innovative teaching ideas or veer from the prescribed curriculum, according to the authors.

“One of the things we were struck by is the amount of direction that archdioceses impart to Catholic schools,” said Mr. Benveniste, who was a graduate student in education at Stanford when the study was conducted. “It’s a highly regulated environment.”

Likewise, the researchers found that private school administrators in some of the same low-income schools rarely fired teachers. Their hesitation came because they knew that, in the face of widespread teacher shortages, they would have a hard time finding replacements and because they feared lawsuits from disgruntled teachers—just as public school administrators said they did.

Also, in both the public and private schools attended by children from poor families, teachers complained that parents were not involved in their children’s schooling.

The opposite was true, however, in the better-off public and private schools, where administrators complained of too much parent involvement.

“In some ways, parents have a greater right of participation in those [higher-income] public schools than in private schools,” Mr. Carnoy added. “I think parents are much more careful about what they say in a private school because they know there’s a waiting list.”

He said the private schools he visited can—and often do—ask families to consider withdrawing their children when parental demands get too vehement. They were, in fact, more likely to ask students to withdraw than to fire teachers.

The evidence adds to a growing body of studies offering mixed findings on whether poor, urban public school students score higher on standardized tests when they’re allowed to transfer to private schools. In the end, said the authors of All Else Equal, it may be unreasonable to expect competition to foster markedly different schools than those that exist now, because parents are cautious consumers.

“Parents have traditional views of what they want schools to be like,” Mr. Carnoy said. “They’re not going to go in for any wild stuff.”

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