Steadfast public opposition, educator advocacy, and a meager (at best) track record has slowed down the push to expand school vouchers nationwide. Still, voucher advocates soldier on, buoyed by Betsy DeVos' determination and a rebranding effort ("education savings accounts," "tuition tax credits") designed to make siphoning public money for private school tuition more politically appealing. Then there's the apparent public consensus that private schools are superior to public schools. That being the case, so the argument goes, how can we deny low-income families the opportunity to send their children to these institutions?
Putting aside the fact that voucher programs are often expanded to include affluent families, the assumption that private schools are the better option for students from disadvantaged communities is misleading and "potentially harmful," says Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Pianta is co-author with research associate Arya Ansari of a new study that concludes the benefits of private schools are being oversold.
In "Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study," Pianta and Ansari find that children with a history of enrollment in private schools did perform better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. Once you controlled for socioeconomic characteristics, however, all of the advantages of private school education were essentially eliminated.
"The study collected a wealth of information on families and students’ performance even before they started school, so it also allowed us to see if private school enrollment added any value over and above those factors," Pianta explains.
Pianta and Ansari analyzed data from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), which beginning in 1991 tracked 1,364 U.S. children from nine different states from birth to age 15. The researchers evaluated ninth-grade outcomes, academic achievement, education aspirations, social behavior, family characteristics (income and parent education), child characteristics and neighborhood characteristics - all used to determine to what extent enrollment in private school was related to students' academic, social and psychological outcomes at age 15.
The results show that socioeconomic advantages, not the school itself, is more predictive of student success.
Despite the arguments in favor of the use of vouchers or other mechanisms to support enrollment in private schools, this study finds no evidence that private schools, exclusive of family background or income, are more effective for promoting student success.” - Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Pianta is quick to point out that this study is not an evaluation of voucher programs. The findings are obviously relevant to the debate since private schools are viewed as the superior choice by voucher proponents. The UVA study does point out, however, that research into existing voucher programs provides little tangible evidence that private school education is producing better academic outcomes.
“Independent investigations of programs in Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and New York City indicate that enrollment in private schools had mixed effects on achievement for low-income students compared with program-eligible peers not attending private schools,” Pianta and Ansari write.
The UVA study is not the first that casts doubt on the supposed advantages of private school education. Pianta and Ansari cite the work of Christopher Lubienski, a researcher at the University of Indiana, and his wife, Sarah Theule Lubienski, a researcher at the University of Illinois, who in 2013 co-authored The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. In the book, the Lubienskis draw on two national data sets and conclude that, once you account for socioeconomic factors, public schools actually outperformed private schools in math instruction.
Lubienski told NEA Today in 2013 that parents need to question these faulty assumptions about private schools if they are looking at that particular option for their children.
"Instead of just looking at whether a school is private or public, [parents] may want to look at the type of preparation and pedagogy the teachers have had or the type of curriculum a school offers. Are the teachers certified or not? These things should matter quite a bit," Lubienski said.
Parents may not ask these important questions because most people misunderstand the heterogeneity of private schools, says Pianta.
"We have a stereotypic view of private schools – the kinds of prep schools we see in movies - terrific teachers, striving kids, a real focus on achievement and excellence," Pianta explains. "But there is a very wide range of private schools – some are very small one-room schoolhouses that run under religious auspices or a very specific model of schooling, while others are like school districts themselves – such as the Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of New York.
"The issue here is that private schools are as variable as public schools, perhaps more so."
The school privatization agenda subsists largely on false narratives (along with an enormous amount of corporate cash) that tend to dissolve under scrutiny. Private school superiority over public schools appears to be no exception, which is good news for students. The further away the national conversation turns away from the fixation on vouchers and other privatization schemes, the better. Perhaps soon, Pianta and Ansari write, lawmakers can focus on "better understanding the mechanisms in schools and families that support student success, and strengthen those resources accordingly."