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Research Undercuts Case for Private School Vouchers

While the spotlight was on U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Republican legislative leaders as they announced a proposal to spend $100 million on vouchers to send poor children to private schools, the results of government-sponsored research that undercut the argument for vouchers was in the shadows.

A few days earlier, the Education Department quietly released a study showing public school students performed about as well -- and in some cases better -- than private school ones on basic skills tests. The research results were released -- without a news conference or comment by Secretary Spellings -- late on the preceding summer Friday afternoon, the favorite time in Washington, D.C. to bury news you don't want anyone to notice.

NEA President Reg Weaver told The New York Times, which did report the story, the findings showed that public schools were "doing an outstanding job" and that if the results had been favorable to private schools, "there would have been press conferences and glowing statements about private schools."

In an official statement, President Weaver also said, "Some lawmakers seem to think that funneling students into private schools will magically fix the country's education problems, but this report shows that's not the answer."

At first comparison, the study reports, researchers found that children who attend public school don't score as well in reading and math as kids who attend private schools. But when the test scores were adjusted for student characteristics, some of those dynamics changed. At the adjusted levels, fourth-grade math scores in public schools were higher than those from private schools, for instance, but private schools still scored higher in eighth-grade reading. The study also found that eighth-grade math students enrolled in "conservative Christian schools" scored lower than their counterparts enrolled in public schools.

The Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) contracted the Educational Testing Service to conduct the study last year.

One of the most scathing attacks on the way the Department of Education handled the story came from the Palm Beach Post in a July 19 editorial, "Bush-suppressed study dispels voucher myth," which said in part:

The U.S. Department of Education, meaning the Bush administration, last week turned an important study comparing public and private schools into a case study on how to bury bad news.

First, it's instructive to explain why the Education Department considered the study to be bad news. Ironic as it may seem to those who haven't followed the Bush administration, it's not because public schools performed poorly. It's just the opposite. The study, conducted for the Education Department by the Educational Testing Service, concluded that public schools stack up well against private schools.

That's "bad news" to the pro-voucher Bush administration and explains why the Department of Education sat on the study after receiving it last year, added weasel words to water down the conclusions and then released the report with zero fanfare on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer when the Middle East was going up in flames.

Quoting NEA President Weaver, the Post editorial stated, "The NEA, which represents public school teachers, has an obvious bias on the subject. In this case, though, Mr. Weaver's analysis is correct.."

The complete research report is available here at the NCES Web site (PDF, 66 pages).

July 2006