An Education on Education

Edd Doerr

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-08891-4). 276 pp. Softcover, $18.00.


For half a century now, we have seen unrelenting attacks on our American public schools coupled with endless drives to privatize education, mainly through the diversion of public funds to private schools by means of all sorts of voucher and tax-code voucher (tax credit) schemes. The two main forces driving this privatization movement (now that vouchers as a gimmick to avoid public-school racial desegregation has faded into history) are presumably “secular” market theorists such as Milton Friedman and John Chubb and Terry Moe and religious and conservative groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Students First (led by pseudo-reformer Michelle Rhee), the Walton (Walmart) Family Foundation, and others.

In The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, both professors of education at the University of Illinois, allow the voucherizers and marketizers ample opportunity to push their worn thesis that private schools are better than public schools, a view that has influenced public opinion to a degree. This is seen in the results of the annual Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa polls of public opinion on education issues over the past four decades. When these polls ask respondents to give a letter grade to public schools nationally, the grade is rather low. When asked about the schools in their community, the grades are higher. And when asked to grade the public school attended by their oldest child, the portion of schools that receive A and B grades is up to about 80 percent. What this seems to mean is that people have bought into the myth that our public schools are largely failing—all but the one they are most familiar with, the one serving their own child.

After giving Friedman, Chubb, Moe, et al. more than enough time to expound their thesis, wham!, the authors lower the boom. Through statistical analyses of mountains of data from the huge databases of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and High School and Beyond (HSB), they show that the seeming superiority of private schools is due to the demographics of their student bodies, which on average serve children of higher socioeconomic status. The analysis is based on math scores, which are the least likely to be influenced by family and social background and most likely to reflect what actually goes on in the schools.

The data sets for these analyses are broken down into six categories: public schools (not including charters), Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, conservative Christian schools, other private schools, and charters. The authors note that Catholic school enrollment is shrinking, while conservative Christian (i.e., Protestant) schools are not only growing but are by all measures the worst schools. The authors also make the point that public (non-charter) schools are the most likely to have the best-trained teachers and the most-advanced methods for teaching. And all this despite the underfunding, inequitable funding, and shrinking funding of public schools.

The authors make their case without any mention of the sectarian indoctrinational nature of the vast majority of private schools or of the half-century of twenty-seven referenda on diverting public funds to private schools, in which voters from California to Massachusetts and Florida to Alaska voted against such misuse of public funds by an average two to one margin. The nature of faith-based schools has been amply explored in my 2000 book, Catholic Schools: The Facts (Humanist Press), Albert Menendez’s 1993 book, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books), and elsewhere.

At this point, let me mention the undated (but probably released in December 2013) twenty-nine-page document, Religious Schools in America: A Proud History and Perilous Future. This is a pro-voucher propaganda piece put out by the American Center for School Choice and its newly created Commission on Faith-Based Schools. Its most useful feature is its chart, “K–12 Faith-Based Student Enrollment: 2001 and 2009–10.” Here are the figures for 2009 to 2010, the most recent available: Assembly of God, 57,520; Baptist, 289,582; Brethren, 9,091; Calvinist (Christian Reformed), 26,691; Christian (unspecified, presumably fundamentalist), 697,358; Church of God, 13,744; Episcopal, 119,746; Evangelical Lutheran, 23,383; Friends, 22,205; Greek Orthodox, 4,768; Islamic, 32,646; Jewish, 221,178; Missouri Synod Lutheran, 179,525; Men­nonite, 20,384; Methodist, 35,933; Other, 26,729; Other Lutheran, 6,596; Pente­costal, 16,924; Presbyterian, 55,449; Roman Catholic, 2,314,397; Seventh-day Adventist, 64,720; and Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, 36,988. (The following were excluded because figures are possibly unreliable: African Methodist Episcopal, Amish, Church of God in Christ, Church of the Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, Latter-day Saints.)

Count ’em: those are twenty-eight separate categories of faith-based schools, some of which are actually more complex. Now imagine what happens if these schools are supported by public funds extracted by government from taxpayers of thousands of different shades of belief or nonbelief, not to mention the immense variety of proliferating, supposedly secular, charter schools not under the control of locally elected school boards. Anyone with even a tiny scrap of intelligence can see that vouchers are a surefire formula for fragmenting our school population—indeed our whole population—into smaller or larger religious, ideological, ethnic, class, linguistic, ability level, disability level fiefdoms. Think of the social disruption. Think of the actual dollar costs of the fragmentation. Think of the traffic nightmares of fleets of yellow school buses hauling kids to all these different schools, few of whose attendance areas are coterminous with public-school districts (as, for example, in Pennsylvania).

Marketizers and voucherizers preach about the value of competition in education. But does anyone living in the real world really think that the various kinds of schools listed above, by the people who push vouchers, actually compete against each other? These twenty-eight-plus sectarian school categories appeal to quite different sets of parents.

The Lubienskis’ book, Diane Ravitch’s 2013 Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, and Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine’s 2012 Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Schools: What’s at Stake are the three most important books on the crucial matter of education to appear in many years.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

A review of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher A. Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski.

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