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Lessons—Court Lacks Last Word in Aid to Religious Schools

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON MAY 15, 2002]

Court Lacks Last Word in Aid to Religious Schools

By Richard Rothstein

The Supreme Court will soon decide if public money can pay for tuition at private religious schools. Advocates and opponents of vouchers await the ruling with great excitement or dread. But the decision may be less important than they think.

Whatever the ruling, constitutional policy will change little because the government already supports religious schools by providing them with busing, textbooks and remedial aid. Tax policy helps as well, because donations are deductible.

Last year’s federal tax cut also included credits for private (including religious) school fees. Arizona and Pennsylvania have their own tax breaks for charities that subsidize such fees. Other states are weighing similar plans.

But the main reason the court’s ruling will have little impact is that private schools’ attraction as a way to improve education is beginning to wane. A decade ago many policy makers believed that private education was less bureaucratic and that competition for students would spur all schools to improve. They thought that poor and minority students in particular would achieve more if they could go to private schools.

But evidence is now accumulating that privatization is no simple answer. Consider the urban Roman Catholic schools that sometimes post higher scores than nearby public ones. Recent carefully controlled studies have more ambiguous results than expected. In New York City, black students gained 5.5 percentile points in math and reading, on average, after being offered subsidies to attend private (mostly Catholic) schools for three years. Some grade levels gained more, others less. Yet in Washington, black students gained nothing over all. Hispanics gained nothing in either city.

These murky results are not surprising. Catholic schools and public ones face similar problems, like poor academic support from disadvantaged parents. Catholic-school teachers, paid less than those in public schools, are often as unqualified as the least-prepared public-school teachers. Even where Catholic-school teachers are nonunion, firing bad teachers is almost as hard as in public schools. It is never easy to replace teachers if adequate replacements cannot be found. Also, Catholic-school administrators usually follow due process in evaluating teachers, making terminations for less than blatant malfeasance unlikely.

Charter schools—run like private schools but technically public—have also been no panacea. Some charters have higher scores than comparable regular schools, but others do not. Some states are now tightening charter laws because achievement has declined in some charter schools.

The high cost of private education also shows why it may not be the wave of the future. The most prestigious private schools serving affluent families charge far more than public agencies can pay. In addition, private schools have not shown that they can adequately serve lower-income students for the amount public schools spend.

Edison Schools Inc., for example, the nation’s largest for-profit school chain, was founded in 1992 to create private schools that produced better results at less cost than public schools. Its officers thought public schools wasted money on bureaucracy, so Edison could still profit by cutting administrators and charging less tuition than public schools spent.

But Edison could not design a system that cost less than public education. Now, when the company contracts with districts to operate regular schools, it charges the full amount that public schools spend. Ironically, Edison asserts that even at this price the company is unprofitable because its administrative costs are too high. Its officers say the company must now expand, by adding more schools, to gain economies of scale that will reduce the per-pupil cost of bureaucracy.

Yet with 75,000 students, Edison is already one of the nation’s largest school systems. When a public district gets this big, it often becomes less efficient, not more. For example, a superintendent can no longer supervise each principal, so new layers of oversight are needed. The most efficient districts probably have about 20,000 students.

In the long run, private education will grow only if it yields high achievement more efficiently than public schooling, especially for disadvantaged children. Private schools may be unwilling to subject themselves to this test. In Milwaukee, for example, a city whose vouchers’ continuation will depend on the Supreme Court ruling, a requirement that private schools report test scores for voucher students was dropped after advocates of vouchers objected.

Demonstrating higher achievement at less cost may not be impossible, but is more difficult than it once seemed. The Supreme Court’s decision cannot enhance the quality of this evidence.

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