Private vs. public school debate not settled

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Private vs. public school debate not settled

A letter to the editor in the State Newspaper (3/29)

In his March 1 op-ed column, “When competition makes things worse,” Paul Thomas asserts that “major studies show that private schools do not outperform public schools academically. The perception that they do comes from the tendency of private schools to attract the most affluent students….” Both statements are misleading.

Indeed, some studies have found no statistically significant differences in academic achievement between students in the government and private sectors after controlling for family background factors.

On the other hand, some studies have found private schools produce better cognitive outcomes than public schools, even after controlling for students’ family background. I refer the reader to James Coleman’s classic study, High School Achievement (1982), and recent work documenting positive private school effects by Paul Peterson, Christian Smith, Jay Greene and Herbert Walberg. Common to all of this work is controversy over, among other things, sampling, control of variables and the target population. My point is that this issue is far from settled in the research community.

Regarding the demography of private education, this sector does not tend to draw the “most affluent students.” This perception probably is fed by the high visibility of elite schools that are often patronized by very affluent families.

President Obama’s choice of the pricey Sidwell Friends School for his children is a case in point. Neither the president nor Sidwell, however, defines the private sector. Most families who opt for private schools, often for religious or philosophical reasons, are broadly middle-class. The schools they choose often struggle financially. And anyone familiar with the world of nonpublic education knows that the private sector continues to attract an increasing number of “poor” and “minority” students. Catholic school enrollment, for example, is currently about 25 percent minorities.

JAMES C. CARPER
Professor
Department of Educational Studies
University of South Carolina
Columbia

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