In two recent opinion pieces, public school critics characterized traditional public schools as “failing and violent” and lauded school choice (charter schools in one article and charters schools, vouchers, and tax credits in the other) as the way to drive educational improvement. Both of these articles stretch the truth about international comparisons, school violence and the nature of “public” schooling in ways that simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.
Comparing the effectiveness of American K-12 public schools with those of other nations is tricky business. While it is true that the U.S. performs less well than other industrialized nations in mathematics, our scores in reading are more comparable. A closer look at international comparisons shows that our low test scores are due, at least in part, to growing income inequality and child poverty in the U.S. It is the large numbers of our children who live in poverty, rather than test scores, that we should be concerned about. It is also important to recognize that our scores in these international comparisons are unlikely to create the drag on our economy that many critics claim — American productivity has consistently outpaced that of nations with higher test scores.
Without diminishing the importance of taking student bullying and violence seriously, evidence from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that student reports of theft and violent crime at school have decreased steadily over time.
While there are certainly flaws within our system of public education, it is important to realize that the biggest problems that most schools face are related to insufficient resources. The reason for this is that schools are predominately funded through local property taxes and property values vary significantly from district to district. In Pennsylvania alone, the gap between per pupil expenditures in the wealthiest school districts as compared to those in the poorest areas is huge, with some wealthy districts spending more that $20,000 per pupil while others spend less than $10,000. This gap is further compounded because a disproportionate number of children from poorer districts come to school with educational difficulties that are associated with living in poverty such as lead poisoning, asthma, dental problems, and poorer nutrition. These children also have less access to quality pediatric care. The evidence here is clear; it is more expensive to educate children with these challenges.
To date, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that charter schools, cyber schools, or school vouchers to attend private schools will better address these kinds of issues than traditional public schools. The largest systematic study of charters by the Institute of Education Sciences shows that charter school quality varies widely and that, on average, charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools.
The blind faith that so-called reformers have in markets to solve our social problems simply lacks a grounding in reality. What is most likely to happen in the kind of loosely regulated market system touted by SB1 is general disinvestment by the wealthy, many of whom already send their children to private schools, in the public educational system that serves the rest of us. Rather than providing new opportunities for poor children, SB1 is just another unapologetic effort on the part of some wealthy individuals (dare I say the 1 percent) to keep their tax dollars from being used to educate poor and minority children who often live in school districts and communities far from their own. Few charters and cyber schools have demonstrated they deserve further investment. A better strategy would be providing all of our schools with the resources necessary to educate all of children, rich and poor, to their highest potential.
Abe Feuerstein is associate dean of faculty, College of Arts and Sciences, Bucknell University.