Tests dent image of private schools

13th August 1999 at 01:00
UNITED STATES: A transatlantic equivalent of the assisted places scheme is in

trouble, reports Jon Marcus.

THE CONTROVERSIAL idea of using government money to send children to private schools has been dealt a blow. In a standardised test, the private-school pass rate was little better than that in state schools.

The results shattered long-held beliefs that American private schools are superior to the state sector, an assumption that has fuelled a growing movement calling for tax vouchers to be given to state-school pupils who want to go private.

Among other reasons, private schools were assumed to be better because they are free from strict regulations that govern the state sector - including requirements for independent testing. But when 10-year-old private and state-school students in New York were given an identical proficiency test for the first time this year, the pass rate in private schools was just 55 per cent, according to the new results. That was only 3 per cent higher than in state schools.

"The results suggest that, even as state-school standards for education have plummeted, private-school standards have dropped right along with them," the New York Post griped in an editorial.

Private-school vouchers in America have spread from the cities of Milwaukee, Cleveland and the District of Columbia. Now the state of Florida is to let families use public funds for private schools beginning autumn next year.

Supporters of the vouchers say they will force state schools to improve because of competition from their private counterparts. Opponents are adamant that they will siphon money from the state sector, which will be left educating only the toughest kids or those with learning disabilities rejected by the private schools.

"Vouchers are sold to the public as a rescue mission for poor children trapped in failing schools," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. But the results "show that vouchers are not the answer to improving the educational prospects of poor children."

An earlier University of Wisconsin study also found that pupils in the Milwaukee voucher programme showed no immediate gain over those who remained in in the state sector.

"This school experiment has not yet led to more effective schools," said Professor John Witte of the University of Wisconsin, whose findings have provided ammunition for the critics. "Choice creates enormous enthusiasm among parents, but student achievement fails to rise."

But pro-voucher forces have embraced a follow-up study by Harvard and the University of Houston contending that the reading scores of Milwaukee students in the voucher programme were from 3 to 5 percentage points higher by their third and fourth years than those of comparable low-income state-school students.

Many parents, meanwhile, say they prefer the higher expectations, smaller classes and stricter, environment of private schools, regardless of researchers' claims.

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