School Rankings and Vouchers: Connecting the Dots

Edd Doerr

Much has been made of the global school rankings released in Dec­ember 2013. They were based on the performance of fifteen-year-olds on math and reading in the Program for Internation al Student Assessment (PISA), published in Education Week. Out of sixty-five countries, the United States ranked thirty-sixth in math and twenty-fourth in reading. Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan were the leaders in both categories, though some suspect “fudging” by the Chinese.

Only three U.S. states were involved in the PISA assessment: Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida. The first two placed somewhat above the overall U.S. ranking in math and sixth and eleventh in reading, while Florida placed well below the U.S. ranking in both—due, surely, to the state’s underfunding of public education and its Republican-led diversion of public funds to charter and private schools. Incidentally, Massachusetts voters rejected measures to divert public funds to private schools in referendum elections in 1982 and 1986 by margins of 62 percent to 38 percent and 70 percent to 30 percent, the latter being the percentage of opposition to school vouchers registered in the 2013 Gallup/PDK poll. Florida voters in 2012 rejected vouchers by 55 percent to 45 percent.

Why didn’t the U.S. rank higher in PISA? Part of the explanation is that a far larger percentage of U.S. kids are poor in comparison with those in other rich countries. According to UNICEF, in 2011, 23.1 percent of U.S. kids seventeen years old and under lived in households with incomes below 50 percent of the national median. Only Romania had a higher poverty rate. Here are comparative figures for some other countries: Sweden, 7.3 percent; Norway, 6.6 percent; Denmark, 6.3 percent; the Netherlands, 5.9 percent; Finland, 3.6 percent. In between were Canada, 14 percent; Germany, 9.4 percent; and the United Kingdom, 10 percent.

Now let’s compare the U.S. ranking with those of a couple of countries that have been praised by some for their school-voucher plans. Beginning in the 1990s, Swedish parents were given vouchers for their children to attend private schools, including those operated for profit. Sweden’s PISA ranking? It was behind the United States at thirty-eighth in math and thirty-sixth in reading. So much for Svensk school vouchers! (Sweden’s poverty rate is less than one-third that of the United States and the country is much more homogeneous than the United States.)

Then there is Chile, where the brutal Pinochet military dictatorship installed the Milton Friedman school-voucher plan after the 1973 coup. Where does Chile stand in the PISA ratings? It is fifty-first in math and forty-seventh in reading. (In Chile’s presidential run-off election on December 15, 2013, the Socialist candidate whomped the Conservative candidate 62 percent to 38 percent. Winner Michelle Bachelet evidently triumphed because she favors reducing the income/wealth divide exacerbated by the Pinochet dictatorship.)

Now let’s turn to Indiana, the state in which I taught many years ago. There, recent Republican governors and legislatures have been diverting public funds to church-run and other private schools through vouchers (upheld by the state supreme court in apparent indifference to Article 1, sections 4 and 6 of the state’s constitution). Charter schools are riding high, but state school superintendent Tony Bennett was ousted by voters in 2012 in favor of a Democrat and public-school teacher, Glenda Ritz (now under attack by Republican Governor Mike Pence). The unlamented Bennett had helped the Cristel House Academy charter school get a phony “A” state rating in 2012, which led to his departure as Florida education commissioner in 2013. How do Hoosier schools stack up? According to researcher Steve Hinnefeld, the state’s elementary public schools’ median “growth score” for 2012–2013 is at the fifty-first percentile in math and the fiftieth in English. For the private schools that reported growth scores, which were mostly church-run, median scores were at the forty-sixth percentile in English and fortieth in math. For charter schools, median scores were at the forty-sixth percentile in English and a measly thirty-sixth in math. For the Cristel House Academy favored by Bennett, the scores were twenty-fifth in math and twenty-third in English. And all this despite the advantages of selectivity enjoyed by private and charter schools in comparison to public schools, which must accept all comers.

Hinnefeld also notes that many of Indiana’s voucher-aided schools “use textbooks that infuse Christian fundamentalism with far-right politics and anti-government extremism. A number of the schools say on their websites that their curriculum is based on materials from the A Beka or Bob Jones publishing companies, which espouse a narrow form of religion that some describe as ‘Christian supremacist’ and take positions well outside the Christian mainstream.” The A Beka and Bob Jones textbooks are widely used in private conservative Christian schools throughout the country. My colleague Al Menendez exposed these two publishers in his book Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books, 1993).

While we are comparing schools, it is interesting to look at the schools in rather well-off Montgomery County, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C., whose public-school system is rated one of the best in the nation by Education Week. (Note: Maryland has only twenty-four school districts, coterminous with counties, compared to such states as Pennsylvania with over five hundred districts and Texas with over 1,200; Maryland’s setup is more conducive to evening out the school experience for all students.) Montgomery County public schools’ average annual per-student spending is $13,607, but consider the average per-student spending figures for the county’s private schools: Episcopal, $27,865; Quaker, $26,698; secular, $24,450; Catholic, $23,531; Jewish, $19,478; Protestant/Evangelical, $11,441.

Do these private schools attract religious diversity in their student bodies? Should they receive public subsidies extracted from taxpayers of all persuasions through vouchers or tax credits? Let’s see how they advertise themselves in local media. Montrose Christian School “provides Christ-centered education for the glory of the Savior”; B’nai Israel School provides a “warm, nurturing Jewish-oriented environment in which children grow and thrive Jewishly”; Covenant Life School believes in “educating students who will think biblically and live passionately for Christ”; the Muslim Community School presents “an educational philosophy that is deeply rooted in the Qur’an”; Mary of Nazareth Catholic School emphasizes a program “rooted in the faith and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as professed in the Creed, celebrated in the sacraments, lived in Christian virtue, and affirmed in prayer”; Church of the Redeemer Christian School employs a curriculum with “a solid base in the Bible.” And on and on and on. (My thanks to my colleague Al Menendez at Americans for Religious Liberty for pulling together this material.)

Can and should our public schools be improved? Of course, but we have to stop the powerful pseudo-reform and privatization drives discussed in my December 2013/January 2014 FI column. And we have to adopt the wise, tested reforms recommended by Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. In January, The Nation magazine rated Ravitch’s book as the “most valuable book” of 2013.

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.

The data actually undermine claims that private, especially religious, schools deliver better education.

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