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Evidence supports need for vouchers, researcher says

Competition among private, public schools benefits students

Published: April 25, 2009   
Dr. Jay P. Greene is chairman of the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform, based in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Catholic schools and other private institutions fare well in some areas of education research; in other areas, they do about as well as public schools.

That's perhaps not surprising, but the research is coming from a public institution: the University of Arkansas' Department of Education Reform.

Dr. Jay P. Greene leads the department and holds an endowed chair in education reform. He's researched and written extensively about social promotions and accurate reporting of graduation rates -- and he's been criticized in some quarters for supporting school vouchers. But Greene said he's looked at the evidence, both his own work and that of others, and reviewed it carefully.

"What's my personal investment in this? Personally, I attended public school, K-12. My mother was a public school teacher, my grandmother was a public school teacher and my children go to public schools. I'm not Catholic, I've never been a student or a teacher at a Catholic school, so I have no personal investment other than a general interest," Greene said.

"I am very interested in trying to improve organizations and produce better results."

The UA department has a greater focus on private education than some other educational think-tanks, Greene said.

"Our charge is to look at ways of improving public education in Arkansas and nationwide. We just think private education can play a role in that."

Two other researchers on the staff have children who currently attend St. Joseph School in Fayetteville: Patrick J. Wolf and Gary W. Ritter. Wolf is evaluating voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., -- and he sends one son to St. Joseph; another son is home-schooled.

"We practice two different forms of school choice" at home, Wolf said of his family.

Each child is being educated in an appropriate setting for their own needs, he said.

Ritter's specialty is school policy, including such hot topics as merit pay for teachers. His three children attend St. Joseph, and he grew up in the northeastern part of the country, where Catholics were more common. He jokes about being asked after moving to the South, "Are you Catholic or Christian?'

"I think technically I can be both," he says now.

But while he supports school choice -- to a point -- Ritter said he's "ambivalent" about "wholesale" school voucher programs.

"I'm a researcher of public education, yet I don't mind sending my children to Catholic schools," Ritter said. "Our goal (as researchers) is to make sure as many kids as possible are educated in the best way possible; it's not to preserve one institution or another. As a researcher, my goal is not to preserve or support Catholic schools."

The UA's Department of Education Reform was established in 2005 with a $10 million donation from the private Wind gate Charitable Foundation of Siloam Springs. Another $10 million in matching funds came from the UA, thanks, at least in part, to money from the Walton family. The department has six endowed professorships and 10 doctoral fellowships, and for the past three years, it has sponsored a lecture series covering a variety of educational topics, often related to Catholic or private schools. Speakers for the 2008-09 year included Martin West, a Brown University professor whose topic was "Every Catholic Child in a Catholic School," and Notre Dame professor Dave Campbell, whose topic was "Civic Education and Engagement." Videos of their talks and copies of their presentations, as well as those of other speakers, are available on the department's Web site at ua/der/lecture_series_08_09.html.

Wolf is currently evaluating a relatively small school voucher program in Washington, D.C., and a much larger and older program in Milwaukee.

"Catholic schools are a big part of these programs," Wolf said. "Parents are highly satisfied. They view (private religious) schools as much safer, better ordered, more disciplined. That's a big reason why they chose (these schools)."

About 2,600 students have been offered vouchers in the Washington school district during the past five years, Wolf said, but the program may end this year.

"It hasn't been reauthorized by Congress. In fact, Congress recently passed a spending bill to rescind the D.C. voucher program. Right now, it has a death sentence of 2010."

Wolf said parents were surprised.

"I think the parents are shocked because those who are participating in the program and are satisfied with the schools can't understand why this opportunity would be ended for them. The participating private schools are quite concerned; they've taken in a lot of low-income, educationally disadvantaged students and been working with them for several years," he said. "Early results ... suggest at least some subgroups of students were already benefiting academically. Their test scores were higher. The schools are concerned (this will) come to an abrupt end."

Ending the program may hurt financially for Washington-area Catholic schools with significant numbers of voucher students, Wolf predicted, as vouchers are worth up to $7,500 per student.

"Catholic schools don't charge that much, but they can use some of the money for transportation, lab fees -- any educationally relevant fees."

The Milwaukee program started in 1991 as a small test, and it was expanded in 1998 after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the program constitutional. Currently, about 20,000 attend private schools through the voucher program, Wolf said. His team is in the third year of evaluating the program, comparing test scores to those of public-school children. To date, results indicate parent satisfaction is high, Wolf said.

Also, there are "indications that the program may be boosting test scores, particularly of boys." These are inner-city programs with low-income, disadvantaged kids, Wolf said, and preliminary information is showing boys are doing "significantly better" in reading. A good foundation in reading gives these students better chances at success throughout life, both in work and at home, he explained.

Wolf earned his doctoral and master's degrees from Harvard University and he holds the endowed chair in school choice. He is assisted in his work with three full-time research associates and two students. The team compares test scores but also does surveys and focus groups with students, who are much harder to understand than their parents.

"Quite frankly, I don't know what to make of information we get from inner-city teenage kids. When we look at the surveys, kids are no more satisfied with private voucher schools than ... comparison kids in public schools. Basically, parents tell a story of much higher satisfaction; teenage kids tell a story of no difference."

He suggests one explanation for the discrepancy:

"Some voucher kids we survey say the homework is harder now (than in public schools) and teachers are more strict. That might be why they're less happy," he added.

Wolf hopes to be able to follow students in the study through their college years "to see if this opportunity for private schooling ... has a significant impact" on their success.

Voucher programs aren't popular with most organized teachers' groups.

"We don't get Christmas cards from the teachers' unions," Wolf said dryly. But, he added, "there are several top-level officials in both D.C. and in Milwaukee supporting our research, assisting us in getting data we need and are committed to finding what ... strategies help kids."

Ritter holds the endowed chair in education policy. He has doctoral and master's degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. His research into merit pay isn't necessarily popular with teachers' unions either.

"Teachers groups are so resistant to this," he said. "Teacher representatives represent all teachers, not necessarily just effective teachers ... If effective teachers start getting more of the pie than ineffective teachers, I can see how it would ruffle some feathers."

Catholic schools are as resistant as public schools to the idea of merit pay, Ritter said. He cited as examples conversations he's had with Catholic school principals worried about losing their best teachers.

"Why not just pay her more?" Ritter said he asked those principals. The response, invariably, is "Oh, no, I couldn't do that."

"Regardless of where they teach, a uniform salary schedule is taken as a given," Ritter said.

He wonders whether the current system of standard pay attracts the wrong kind of people to the field.

"I think we end up, in Catholic schools as well as public schools, bringing the wrong sort of people into the (teaching) profession. It might bring a person who desires job security above all else, and we might discourage people who don't seek job security as much as they seek the thrill of being challenged ... and then being paid more for being good."

That's not to say all teachers are risk-averse.

"There are lots of people who will enter (the field), regardless of the pay scale, because they want to teach." But, he explained, "all aspects of the job influence who comes and goes in the job. They have an influence over people who will apply. The way this structure (works), we encourage non-risk-takers, and people who seek security over reward."

Ritter said the research is "at an infant stage."

"My hope is that we'll know a lot more about this in the next three or four years," he added.

Greene also has doctoral and master's degrees from Harvard University. His work includes a book published in 2005, "Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe about Our Schools and Why It Isn't So."

He posed a question as to whether people are comfortable with schools competing for resources and students.

"Every business person is a natural monopolist," Greene said. "They want monopolies for themselves if they can get them. The same is true of education and the same can be true of public schools -- they just aren't allowed that luxury. They have to scramble for their students and for their resources."

As a result, Greene said, private schools often serve their students' needs better than public schools where some resources are assured.

"General intuition is, if people are guaranteed resources regardless of how well they do, they may not do very well. It's something we're studying, and, in my work, there is a considerable and growing body of evidence that, when schools compete, students achieve benefits."

Like any other organization, schools are influenced by special interests and politics.

"Much as we would like education to be immune to those forces, unfortunately, education is not," Greene said.

Further, "it's not uncommon for people to pursue their own interests, even at the expense of their own children. It's more common for adults to pursue their own interests (say through the national debt) at the expense of someone else's children."

Greene disputed the characterization of private schools as well-financed, highly resourced and elite academies for the wealthy.

"For the most part, private schools look nothing like that. ... Most private schools are religiously affiliated. ... They're not subsidized by giant amounts of funding from religious organizations."

Nor are most private schools "test-in" academies, selectively choosing students and expelling those who are troublesome, Greene said.

"Because (private schools) live off tuition, they are eager to accept (students) ... and they have a sense of mission, a sense of religion, eager to take on all comers."

Catholic schools "rarely turn anyone away," Greene added.

Another misconception is the idea that Catholic schools are filled with nuns and priests willing to teach for little or no pay.

"For the most part, Catholic teachers are lay people. There are fewer and fewer nuns and priests."

Just four years old this year, the Department for Education Reform is still young and real influence on educational change is probably a few years away.

"It's unrealistic to expect dramatic things overnight, but our goal is to produce information ... and inform educators and the general public," Greene said.

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