Public/Private Schools Make Little Difference for Low-Income Students
> 10/12/2007 11:30:10 AM

A new, somewhat contradictory report released by the non-partisan Center on Education Policy appears to relegate the public vs. private school debate to the second tier of educational issues. Its findings, diverging from previous studies favoring private education, state that, after controlling for socioeconomic variables and family characteristics, low-income students performed just as well at public schools as they did at private schools despite some clear differences between the two. Whether this finding is an encouraging one is another matter entirely.

The conclusion seems to be that parental behavior and a readiness to participate in the learning process factor more heavily into a student's academic performance than the nature of the schools which they attend. Beyond that, social class is, unfortunately, by far the greatest predictor of future academic success, assumedly because of the influence of the greater resources and better-trained professionals that more money provides. Variables with the greatest overall impact on student reading scores were family income, previous academic performance levels, parental expectations, parental participation in school activities, and parental inclination toward discussing school matters with their children. More purely formulaic subjects (science and math) drew greater influence from income levels and previous performance than the social habits of parents.

The only private institutions that came out ahead in this study: Catholic schools run by independent orders such as the Jesuits. Resolving the issue of exactly why that is the case requires additional study, but it may have something to do with their relative freedom from archdiocese dogma that was not devised with the best interests of low-income American students in mind. The study's larger conclusion: the popular assumption that private schools are generally better and help kids learn more efficiently is only true in select cases, and consistent interest and participation in a child's education on the part of his or her parents is the most important factor determining performance.

Obvious exceptions to this rule exist, and we would hardly be surprised if a disproportionate number of our country's best (and best-funded) schools happened to be private. Smaller classes, better qualified teachers and higher quality resources are not common to all private schools, but individual donations and tuitions make for better-equipped facilities more attractive to the parents of high-performing kids, and the chances of being lost in the endless sea of public schools are certainly greater. But for the low-income and minority students whose interests supposedly lie at the heart of the public vs. private debate, school choice makes little difference. And the support of a loving parent is by far the most important aspect of the larger education equation. Those who argue for vouchers and lament the death of American public education may be more influenced by politics than passion. For the most part, our students perform at unfortunately mediocre levels no matter what sort of schools they attend.

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