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Reducing Poverty in America: Views and Approaches

Michael Darby, editor


     In a trenchant essay, the late Albert Shanker tries to dispel myths of private schools producing better academic performance.


     A cursory look at NEAP tests given to twelfth graders suggests private school students perform only slightly better than public school students, not accounting for factors plaguing public schools—tenure, bureaucracies, discipline problems, larger schools, larger classes, poorer parents, less educated parents, less selective entrance, less selective eligibility, less rigorous course offerings, fewer students taking courses in tune with the NEAP and interference by vile interest groups (lawyers).


    “81% of private school seniors and only 56% of the public school seniors in the NEAP sample were on an academic track.” He writes, “71% of catholic high schools cite student discipline as their chief admissions criteria... 71% require an entrance exam,” and “50% more private school youngsters... have college graduate parents.” In 1991, 31 percent of public school students came from families with less than $15,000 in income, versus less than 12 percent of private school students.




     When only one factor, parental educational level (partly a genetic factor), is compared across schools, we find nearly identical NEAP performance, and that ignores the fact that the public school numbers are held down by the numerous other factors mentioned above, though private schools may suffer from lackluster teachers because private schools often pay less.


     Given all the factors that public schools have going against them, the big questions are why don’t private school students leave public school students “behind in the dust[,]” and why do private schools produce nearly identical results as public schools when they have better students in better circumstances?


Good question.


      Examining voucher programs in Milwaukee, Shanker finds that they had almost no impact on academic performance, that 11 of 23 eligible private schools in 1994 refused to accept voucher students and those that did were extremely restrictive in the students they accepted. The parents of students accepted were happier with private schools, but perhaps because of factors that undermine safety and discipline in public schools. The solution is to change those factors. Embracing vouchers as the reform model wastes time, money and students.


     “Public and private schools by and large have the same textbooks, the same curricula, the same internal organizations—and the same mediocre academic standards.” The voucher movement merely provides rhetorical ammunition for conservatives to tout ersatz universalist credentials. The problem, according to an Atlantic Monthly article: liberals oppose anything with the word standards in it; conservatives oppose anything with the word national in it—including good, national standards.


      Shanker claims the near exclusive emphasis on private schools as a reform proposal wastes effort better spent increasing the performance of students in all schools. The problem with vouchers: If they are beneficial, they offer only minor benefits. The bulk of school improvement must come from good standards and good enforcement of those standards.


     Students, Shanker writes, know the incentives. Students know a high school transcript has little value in the adult world, except for students headed to elite colleges. For most students, decent paying jobs depend on height, charisma, seniority, reliability, attractiveness, resourcefulness, job performance and communication skills.


     Undaunted by a lack of academic evidence favoring vouchers, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe try a curious tactic, arguing that private schools succeed at mediocrity, er, equality, claiming a child will more likely be tracked in a public school than a private school. Moe and Chubb assume tracking is evil because they make no effort to argue the point. The list of factors they use to account for differences in tracking looks suspiciously incomplete. I can think of at least a dozen potential reasons for equality differences Moe and Chubb do not mention, many of them character factors (parents seeking SSI “crazy” money). Moe and Chubb fail to mention that students who undermine equality get kicked out of private schools or are not permitted to enter private schools.


     The editor claims lower-income living standards are higher than a generation ago because of a potential overstatement of inflation due to discounting of quality improvements and other factors such as an increase in government non-cash benefits, but this overstatement claim has never been adequately supported and probably amounts to horse manure.


     Darby does not mention factors that lower living standards over time:

·        Greater requirements for autos, childcare, education, professional work attire, professional personal care expenditures, longer commutes and more traffic congestion.

·        Recipients get little of the value of non-cash benefits. The benefits primarily go to the medical industrial complex and other interest groups. They are not worth the dollar value the government spends to the recipient. Many lower-income workers receive almost no non-cash benefits from the government anyway and taxes have increased taxes on lower-income workers.


See additional arguments about why living standards did not rise during the past generation my other arguments.


     Douglas J. Besharov gives an overview of social and economic trends. He relies heavily on correlations that give little indication of cause, though he makes this important point: “We often hear that about half of all new [welfare] recipients are off the rolls within 2 years. This is true but only because of the high turnover among short-term recipients. At any one time, about 82% of all recipients are in the midst of spells that will last 5 years or more.”


     Examining Latinos, David Hayes-Butista finds low-income despite high work rates. James Q. Wilson tells us about the neighborhood he grew up in, then delivers terrible conclusions, none supported by his neighborhood story.


Some of these essays are worth reading.


— Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 8, 2009


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