Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Three Rs

Are no longer writing, reading and arithmetics. Perhaps we should upgrade them to rabid, reactionary and Republican? I'm not sure.

But this is very funny: First read this earlier post of mine and then come back to compare the message to this one:

The Bush administration and Republican legislators yesterday proposed a $100 million national plan to offer low-income students private-school vouchers to escape low-performing public schools. The plan was immediately assailed by Democrats, unions and liberal advocacy groups.

The proposal comes four days after the independent research arm of the Department of Education issued a report showing that public schools are performing as well as or better than private schools, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, in which private schools excelled. The results prompted questions from foes of vouchers about why taxpayer money should go toward private schools instead of toward improving public schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics compared fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores from about 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. Private-school students historically score higher, but the NCES made adjustments to account for student background -- such as socioeconomic factors and race -- which leveled the playing field.

The report also found that conservative Christian schools -- a constituency that supports vouchers -- lagged significantly behind public schools in eighth-grade math. The report supported similar findings from a University of Illinois study on math.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told reporters yesterday that she hadn't yet read the report and made references to the report's "modest sample." The report itself cautioned that because schools are all very different, overall comparisons of the two types of schools may be of "modest utility."

"It was not an evaluation of how school vouchers, how scholarship programs, how additional resources work for low-income families trapped in chronically low-performing schools," she said. "I do see them as . . . apples and oranges issues."

Grover "Russ" J. Whitehurst, director of the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences, said this was the first time NCES used student variables. He said that while the report shows that considering the variables did change scores, it is of limited value because it's just a snapshot in time -- with no long-term reference points.

Spellings, flanked by Senate and House leaders on Capitol Hill, said the "opportunity scholarship" plan would be aimed at helping low-income students "trapped" in poor schools by offering them transfers to other public schools, tutoring, and scholarships to private schools, up to $4,000 per student. The secretary said the plan would cover 28,000 students.

See how Spellings was conspicuous in her absence on Friday but is now flanked by Senate and House leaders? My, my.

It's possible that the students who would be given these vouchers indeed attend very poor public schools. But the earlier study suggests that these schools could work well if they were better funded. The choice then seems to be between giving students money to attend private schools (of undetermined quality) or to give the money to improve the current schools of the students. It could be that the voucher scheme is better, but this is a question to be answered by actually studying it. The Republicans don't want to study it. They want to kill the public schools and to replace the system with a patchwork of private schools as the first step towards ending all public funding of education. Really. I'm not making this up.