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New “Research” Pitting Public vs. Private Schools Leaves Bad Smell

In the world of education policy, there’s limited research with shaky conclusions. There’s highly questionable research with sketchier conclusions. Then there’s the findings in the new book The Public School Advantage by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski. The authors not only seek to make the case that traditional public schools outperform private schools, but attempt to invalidate private school choice programs in the process.

First and foremost, let me say such apples-to-oranges comparisons give me pause. It’s extraordinarily challenging to make broad, facile comparisons between the two sectors of education. Some have tried to make the opposite case as the Lubienskis, with varying degrees of success. The point is that parents choose the best kind of school that works for their child and that we ought to be working to improve access, opportunity, and excellence through competition.

Education policy wonks and school choice supporters should take a few minutes to read Patrick Wolf’s review in the new edition of Education Next. It gets somewhat technical, but some of the main points are worth your attention:

  1. Mr. and Mrs. Lubienski discarded other comparisons to use one narrow performance indicator.
  2. Mr. Wolf shows how that one performance indicator is already pre-biased toward the public schools.
  3. Mr. and Mrs. Lubienski use factors to identify student characteristics that are significantly different between public and private.
  4. Mr. and Mrs. Lubienski leave out certain students from their analysis, something they falsely accuse voucher program studies of doing.

But then the Education Next reviewer concludes with a demonstration of the authors’ biggest leap of all:

The authors devote the concluding chapter to claims that their findings undermine the case for private school vouchers. They do not. Even putting aside the methodological flaws discussed above, all of which bias the comparison of results against the private school sector, this book has nothing to say empirically about private school voucher programs. Voucher recipients make up a tiny fraction of private school students in the data sets the authors examine, especially since the data predate most of what are still very small programs scattered across the country. Thus, the authors of The Public School Advantage claim to invalidate private school vouchers by studying an environment where they are largely absent.

Hey, look! There are no voucher programs here. These results must mean that voucher programs don’t work. Huh? Try instead a survey of all the gold-standard research that shows a small but real Win-Win for kids enrolled in private school choice programs and the surrounding public schools affected by the competition.

If the facts don’t align with your agenda, you can either adjust the facts or adjust your agenda. How sad to see the path these authors chose to take. I say we should stop pitting public vs. private, and open up the doors to let families decide.

Given the real research results we’ve seen, most families likely would stay in some form of public school — including charters and options — if tuition barriers were brought down. In needier areas with poorer results, such expanded choice probably would lead to a bigger impact. If we’re really about ensuring the best opportunities for the most students possible, shouldn’t we take a serious look at broadening the range of education options available?