Monday, February 12, 2007

Test results add up to a good case for vouchers

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:25 AM |  

A good commentary from Mitch Pearlstein --
An urban, low-cost private school did a lot to reduce the achievement gap for blacks.

As Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators consider how to improve urban education, they may want to ponder research findings like these:Citing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), political scientist Abigail Thernstrom and her historian husband, Stephan Thernstrom, have written about how African-Americans, by the 12th grade, "are typically four years behind white and Asian students," with Hispanics "doing only a tad better than black students." Translated, this means that black and Hispanic students are finishing high school, on average, "with a junior high education."

But how many local minority students might be "finishing high school" in the first place?
A 2002 report published jointly by Minneapolis Public Schools, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Minneapolis Foundation showed four-year graduation rates for the Class of 2000 were 47 percent for "Asian Americans"; 31 percent for both "African Americans" and "Hispanic Americans"; and 15 percent for "American Indians." For "White Americans," it was a still-terrible 58 percent.

What about other achievement gaps locally?

In a 2003 study of 19 states with high school exit exams, as reported by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Minnesota was found to have the "largest achievement gap in the country between African American and White non-Hispanic students in math," as measured on the state's Basic Skills Test.

Might dreadful results like these be caused by financially shortchanging inner-city schools?
A common myth is that schools across the country with lots of low-income students are less-well-funded than schools with fewer low-income students. The opposite, actually, is more routinely the case. Minnesota, in fact, recently ranked fifth best in the nation in terms of "extra poverty-based funding per student living below the poverty line." This (benevolent) gap was $3,075.

But given that African-Americans in Minneapolis are doing unusually poorly academically, how do these conflicting findings compute?

To complicate matters even more, consider Ascension School, a K-8 Catholic school in north Minneapolis. Students are overwhelmingly minority; they're overwhelmingly non-Catholic; and in 2005, 90 percent of eighth-graders there passed Minnesota's Basic Skills test in math and 95 percent passed Minnesota's Basic Skills test in reading.

In contrast, eighth-graders in Minneapolis public schools, in 2003, passed at these rates in math: 82 percent for whites; 57 percent for Asian/ Pacific Islanders; 41 percent for Hispanics; 40 percent for American Indians; and 28 percent for blacks. Please note, though you probably already have, that the 82 percent passing rate for whites in Minneapolis public schools was substantially below Ascension's 90 percent for all its kids. MPS scores were significantly better in reading than they were in math; but again, they were significantly below Ascension's reading scores.

What are tuition rates (for non-parishioners) in inner-city Catholic schools in the state? According to the Minnesota Catholic Conference, they average under $3,200 for elementary schools and under $8,000 for high schools. By contrast, as long ago as 2003 -- in the wake of a recession -- federal, state, and local revenues in Minneapolis Public Schools totaled $13,658 per "pupil unit."

Now consider findings like these on voucher programs across the nation, as summarized by William G. Howell and Paul E. Peterson, both of Harvard:

"Voucher interventions that serve African American students seem particularly promising. ... [A]ttending a private school, compared with attending a public school, boosts African American students' test scores, educational attainment, likelihood of pursuing an advanced degree, and future earnings. Even studies that find little comparable benefits for whites typically find that private schools help African Americans."

This leads the two political scientists to conclude:

"The importance of such findings for the education of African American students has been underappreciated. ... With these new data from randomized field studies confirming prior observational studies, the positive impact of private schools on African American students' educational performance can no longer be dismissed as the product of some mysterious selection effect."

For the life of me, I can't understand how any educator, politician, editorial writer, or anyone else can read all of this and not believe vouchers are worth at least a try. Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. The findings above are from his just-released study, "Achievement Gaps and Vouchers: How Achievement Gaps are Bigger in Minnesota than Virtually Anyplace Else, and Why Vouchers are Essential to Reducing Them." The report is also available at

To read the Hon. Don Samuels's Foreword, click here.

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