It has been a long-time conceit on the right that private schools would out-perform those ordinary, “government” schools. And charters, too, one supposes. That is, the problem in American education and in particular the failure to thrive by inner city youth could be attributed to the system. The problem was that their potential was being squelched, that given the right structure they could actually thrive, overcome their surroundings.
So vouchers were introduced.
Two general theories have been advanced about how vouchers would work. The first is borne from the ideas of Milton Friedman and generally of public choice philosophy. When you reduce the transfer costs for schools through vouchers, parents pick the school most suitable for their child. In doing so, the school gets a more committed parent, the student finds a more suitable learning environment, and the community enjoys greater overall achievement.
That’s one theory.
The second looks at education as a means of confirming communal identity; the school is an agent of parents, of a localized group. Vouchers are a means of recognizing theses communal schools, schools typically religious in nature. Educational outcomes are advanced through the social capital of these communal schools — faith practices can orient children, overcome dysfunction elsewhere and help even poor children thrive. And the experience of Catholic urban education seems to uphold this very idea.
However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, both these theories may not be the golden key they first seemed.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of the data suggests vouchers worked best when enrollment from voucher students was kept low. As the percentage of voucher students rises, the returns diminish until the point when there is little difference between the performance of public and private institutions. The vast majority of private schools participating in the program today have high percentages of publicly funded students.
The article details quite well what vouchers have meant for Milwaukee, and how for some students it has provided a need lift up. Note that when one has large numbers of publicly funded students, students from poverty environments, achievement looks like every one else’s.
All this only confirms what folks like Richard Rothstein have argued, that the problems in our urban schools are structural in nature. It is not the failure to teach, or the failure to lead per se. Rather what we face are a cluster of social and economic difficulties that will require, yes, social capital, but also a lot more in terms of innovative programming.
With this has also come the understanding that when students of low socio-economic status are mixed with middle class peers, they do better. Th middle class environment provides what the students lack: social capital.
In this light the outcomes of the WSJ study are not surpassing. When students are reasonably mixed (up to, it seems, forty percent or so), then achievement blossoms. When schools have a larger percentage of their students from lower SES, then their performance looks much the same as the urban schools they left. It is not the institution, but the mixing of classes that matters. Unintentionally, the study does not so much validate the role of private education or charters, as it does the necessity of integration.
You can’t beat poverty. Gravity wins.
PHOTO: LAUREN JUSTICE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL