Of course, the U.S. Constitution requires separation of church and state, but there are ways around that. Public money goes to private colleges in the U.S. now and there is no constitutional problem at all. And, look at the statistics: private schools do better than public schools in reading by almost 15 points (that is a bigger difference than the one between today’s NAEP reading scores and any NAEP score in the past 37 years).
Unfortunately, the superiority of the privates is a chimera… those schools might do better, but that is the result of a selective clientele rather than an educational advantage. According to NAEP, when selection factors are accounted for, the difference drops to zero, the same finding that Herb Walberg and I came up with for the High School and Beyond data in the 1980s. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2006461.asp
To me it doesn’t look like privatizing schools would provide the boost Senator McCain hopes for. Nevertheless, why not allow parents to pick their kid’s school? Why not let them to use their own tax dollars to place their kids with teachers they trust? Why not break the public school monopoly?
I admit that those choices have some attraction. I like the idea of letting parents decide where to put their kids (I get lots of emails from parents unhappy with their kid’s school and they have no alternative—if a school tells them to take a jump, there’s nothing they can do).
So, why do I think school choice is a dumb idea… and I do think it is a dumb idea in 2008! I wouldn’t be opposed if all the government was going to do was to take the $8701 per child that they now give to the public schools and turn it over to parents in the form of an educational voucher that they could spend at any school they chose. But there is more to it than that. There are about 6.2 million kids now in private schools. If we vouchered them too, and we would have to, public education costs would need to jump by about $53 billion annually just to cover these “new kids.” Given that private schools don’t do better than public ones now, I can’t argue for an extra $53 billion.
Maybe John McCain has no intention of increasing educational spending. Maybe he figures on no spending increases at all. If that’s the case, what he is suggesting is about a 12.5% cut in school budgets. I don’t know if such cuts will do educational harm (I’m not an economist), but I can’t see how we’ll improve reading achievement during such large retrenchments. Shifting $53 billion from public schools to the already in-place private schools does not look like a sure-footed approach to teaching kids effectively. At best, it is irrelevant to any real solution to this very real problem.
The educational statistics referred to in this commentary can be found at: