Monday, December 31, 2007


Q. What’s the best strategy for closing the gap [between black and white students] and what in your view are the prospects for success?

A. Abigail Thernstrom: If I had my druthers, I would turn every urban school into a charter school and with the bucks stopping on the principal’s desk.

A. Stephen Thernstrom: I wouldn’t want to restrict the choice made available to students to charter schools. I see no reason why we cannot make it through some kind of voucher plan.

San Diego San Diego Union Tribune, November 13, 2005

Vouchers, besides charter schools and private schools, are covered in Herbert J. Walberg’s new book, SCHOOL CHOICE, THE FINDINGS. It contains solid empirical evidence on all schools including private schools, secular and parochial. Walberg, an expert on effective educational practices and research methods, has fitted the findings into a tiny paperback which will fit into a pocket or pocketbook. The findings are from all the valid empirical studies. CATO published this jewel in 2007, but without the index or footnotes that are in the big edition. They are available from CATO.

Only six public high schools were on the list of 40 high school alma maters of students who are in the eight foremost colleges in 2007 (Wall Street Journal, November 30, page W6).

Public schools

Traditional public schools perform less effectively and efficiently than either charter or private schools. U.S. students are among the poorest performers and at the highest per-pupil cost of students of 39 countries. Productivity (achievement per dollar spent) over the 30-year period 1970 to 2000 declined to 73 percent from 55 percent.

Charter schools

The largest study of charter schools, which included nearly every charter school in the country together with its nearest traditional-school neighbor, showed charter schools outperforming comparison schools. Poor and Hispanic students achieve well. Outcomes improve as charter schools are given more autonomy, funding, and time to work out their opening operating problems. Charter schools have a beneficial effect on their own students and on students in nearby traditional schools. Overregulated and underfunded, they spend a fifth less than traditional schools.


Eleven studies found positive effects on academic achievement of those attending voucher schools but sometimes showed little effect on white students. Studies of voucher programs in Washington , D.C. , Cleveland , and Milwaukee show reduced social tension compared to traditional schools. Research indicates that voucher programs yield results at least as good as those of traditional public schools, and particularly good for black students. Vouchers benefit both private and public schools. The first federal voucher program signed by President Bush in 2004 gives 1900 low-income students choice of private schools.

Voucher programs in the U.S. are too small to provide evidence that supporters believe exists, but evidence is available from Sweden since 1993, the Netherlands since 1917, Chile since 1982, the Czech Republic since the fall of Communism, and Colombia since 1991. Improvements are seen in student achievement, parent satisfaction, and increased numbers of independent schools.

On the effects of private schools, Walberg reviews the findings with respect to academic achievement, efficiency, racial integration, parental satisfaction, and civic engagement by students. Private schools achieve better than public and at lower cost. The findings show private schools are more likely than public schools to foster cross-racial friendships, social integration, civil participation, and tolerance.

The larger the state share of school costs, the smaller the accomplishment. Unfortunately, states have been providing an increasingly larger share. Where states provide only a small fraction, accomplishments are greater, because each school has to compete with other schools. This was the result of Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby’s study of New Hampshire , where the state pays only seven percent of K-12 funds, and six other states including Connecticut . Smaller districts show higher achievement than larger districts. Walberg finds that citizens in smaller districts involve themselves more in school affairs than in larger districts.

Customer satisfaction—parents, children, the public—matters. High level of parental discontent is one of the reasons that over one million students are home-schooled.

Dissatisfaction with public schools suggests basic differences of the public and professors at schools of education. A 1997 Public Agenda survey of education professors’ views showed that only a fifth agreed with the public that students should write correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

The schools of education set the views in the public schools. Abigail Thernstrom told the San Diego editors, “And I will never forget the day that I walked into my daughter’s fifth grade and said, ‘Where is she?’ And I was told ‘Oh, we’re doing math. She doesn’t like math. She doesn’t do math. She’s in the library reading.’”

The prospect for success lies in advancing school choice, as Milton Friedman knew decades ago. In education as in the economy, competition produces winners. School choice is the key to competition in academic achievement. Walberg summarizes:

Two literature reviews of some 140 studies showed that most studies show positive effects of increases in school choice opportunities on overall student achievement. The most rigorous 50-state study found strong positive effects. The largest international study of school choice effects . . . also showed strong positive effects on overall academic achievement.

BY Natalie Sirkin
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