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Much ink is spilled in the “debate” over whether Charter schools, Catholic schools or private schools really do or do not outperform their typical government school counterparts. Among the questions that make this problem hard to solve is that different schools attract different students, so one needs to properly control for the “selection” of students into schools that may be causing differentials in performance wholly aside from the quality of the institution.

If you examine the research on, say, Charter schools, for example you will find that there are of course some shining successes. But I think opponents of charter schools can make a reasonable case that on average, and at the margin, charter schools do not seem to overwhelmingly improve test scores vis-a-vis their traditional government school counterparts. The research on Catholics and other privates is a bit different – maybe in future posts we’ll cover it.

And defenders of charter schools contort themselves to make this evidence seem more favorable while opponents of charter schools see this evidence as justification for ending charter schools. To which, of course, I say hoooo-eeeeeee-yyyyyy. I say hooey for two  reasons.

First, why are we so darn focused on test scores. I understand that they do correlate with later life outcomes. But the folks who tend to favor traditional government schooling tend to try to deemphasize the importance of test scores – except when it comes to charter school performance. You can’t have it both ways. But the point here is that way more than test scores matter. How does charter school attendance impact crime rates? Behavior in general? College completion rates? Entrepreneurialism? Divorce propensities? Chances of having children out of wedlock? Or are we supposed to argue that educating young people should not have any of this as an objective?

Second, and I think more compelling for those who like to argue about things is this. GRANT the evidence that there is not overwhelming evidence that charter schools are “better” than traditional government schools. Is there still a case to be made for them? Absolutely! If a charter school gets the same outcomes as traditional government schools, and does so for half the cost, then that Charter school is twice as productive as the alternatives. It’s twice as good. Requiring that its test scores are twice as good too would be akin to asking a charter school to be four times as good in order to consider it a good deal. But GRANT that this is not even the case (which is not true) can we still argue on behalf of charters and private alternatives? Of course, but it will have you removed from polite company. Maybe parents and kids are simply happier by having the choice to attend something other than the local monopoly, regardless of the performance differences (or lack thereof) between them. Maybe the freedom to pursue an education as you wish is worth it. Does that not count anymore? Do defenders of charters and privates really have to kow-tow to the “liberty is dirty” meme that now proliferates our national discourse? Seriously. Listen to the debates. If the Republicans were seriously motivated by ideas – you would be seeing them run away far less than they do from the ideas of the other side. But I really believe that if you dressed Romney in a blue tie and did not know his name, you would not know what party he really belonged to.



3 Responses to “Charter Schools, Catholic Schools and Private Schools”

  1. Student says:

    I wish I were able to comment more, but I don’t have much in the way of data to make any kind of argument here about the value of charter schools. I wish I did. This post has finally made me commit to putting this research on my list of things to do (it’s a long list so it still probably isn’t happening anytime soon).

    I did attend a charter school for my sophomore, junior, and senior year of high school. I could tell you a story about my own personal experiences and hopefully shed some light on how at least some charter schools work. I might do that tomorrow. In the meantime, back to studying for the test I have tomorrow.

  2. Speedmaster says:

    I’m on-board with all you’ve written. But I’ll go further …

    I don’t care for charter schools as I see them as simply govt. schools with a (very slightly) longer leash. The core problems remain, they are only slightly less virulent. When I see libertarians or conservatives begin defending charter schools I feel like they’ve already conceded 80% of the debate.

    I feel much the same way about vouchers.

    I prefer charters over traditional govt. schools, and vouchers over charters (I think), and private schools with no vouchers over vouchers.

    The reason I say “I think” above is that I worry that with vouchers would come increased govt. interference in otherwise private schools, essentially ruining them.

  3. Harry says:

    Part of my problem with this debate is the federal government and our states poking their nose in this subject at all, and I confess that some of this goes back to the early sixties, when the national high school debate topic was federal aid to education. Much water has passed over the dam since, but I, as a disinterested observer, have seen a steady decline in education at all levels, and find zero benefit from money spent by federal and state governments since. Even the slow kids I grew up with, the 70 and 80 IQ kids, were better prepared to read and count today than masses of children are today. For sixty years or more there has been failure and reversion to educational entropy.

    So we have Republicans who are drawn into the debate over how much federal money should be shoveled toward getting kids to read, and we get No Child Left Behind, with testing, which the NEA instantly complains about, saying they are supposed to teach for the test, raising the question, “What facts do you think you should be teaching, or not?”

    Even our local public schools, run by elected officials whom many of we parents and taxpayers know, are in thrall of the public education establishment, but at least we can vote them out more easily than we can a county or state school board, and that is better than bigger government, which is sure to throw money down a black rathole.

    I can appreciate Speedmaster’s reservations about vouchers, but the principle is appealing, assuming we all get taxed to support “the children”, be they are your own or somebody else’s. The time for me to get a voucher for my daughter’s education has passed, but I wish I had had one (worth $10,000?) to present to my alma mater, a local prep school, to be a day student, should she have expressed interest. Had that opportunity been presented, our local school board might have been more motivated to present a better educational product. For the record, she continued in public school, did well, and today is off my payroll and loves her job.

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