This girl attends tuition-free Mid-Michigan Public School Academy, a Lansing charter school. A nationwide surge in private scholarships is helping thousands of children choose tuition-charging private schools.
Children from lower-income minority families who attend private or parochial schools
through privately funded scholarships academically outperformed their public school
counterparts, according to a recent study from Harvard University and Mathematica Policy
The study focused on nearly 2,000 second- through fifth-grade students in New York
City, including 1,000 students who received scholarships and 960 who applied for, but did
not receive, the scholarships. Nearly 90 percent of the students were either black or
The student test scores evaluated by the study showed that the 1,000 private-school
scholarship students performed an average of two percentage points better on academic
tests than the 960 who remained in the public schools.
The greatest score differences were in math for private-school fourth graders, who
increased their scores over the public-school control group by nearly seven percentage
points, and by fifth graders, who improved their scores in reading by six percentage
If the fourth and fifth graders continue to the make the same progress, the academic
gap between blacks and whites could be eliminated within five years, say researchers. The
gap between black and white students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills is currently about
But Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers,
discounts this study because "an avowed voucher advocate" conducted it. She told
the Washington Post that the increases in academic achievement could be explained by the
smaller class sizes found in the private schools these children attend.
The study also found that parents were happier with their children's education as a
result of the choice scholarships. Nearly 50 percent of scholarship parents gave their new
schools an "A," compared with fewer than 13 percent of parents in the
public-school group. Six in ten parents said they were "well satisfied" with
their scholarship schools, compared with only two in ten public-school parents.
Parental satisfaction plays an important role in the "team effort" to educate
a child, according to Kathie Grzesiak, 1997-98 Michigan Teacher of the Year. "If what
you do in the classroom is not supported at home, nothing will work," Grzesiak told
Michigan Education Report in a 1998 interview. "If you don't have [parental support],
you are fighting a losing battle."
The gains of the fourth and fifth graders are also significant for education policy at
the state and federal levels. On the basis of another study that examined Tennessee
students in smaller classes, Michigan and other states are setting aside millions of
dollars to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, and President Clinton recently
announced a $1.1 billion initiative to hire 100,000 new teachers nationwide. The Tennessee
study showed that the academic performance of students in smaller classes was slightly
better than student performance in larger classes.
But some observers argue that giving families more choices is a better, less expensive
way to achieve similar results. "Privately funded scholarships are a cost effective
way to reduce class size and increase academic achievement. Each student who chooses an
alternative to public education relieves an overcrowded classroom, and the cost is picked
up through private rather than public means," said Pamela Pettibone, program
administrator with the Education Freedom Fund, a Grand Rapids-based organization that
provides low-income children with privately funded scholarships to attend their school of
Although the Harvard study is based on only two years of test data, researchers say
that it is the first study of its kind to compare statistically and demographically
equivalent student groups.
The decision to study only students from families who applied for private scholarships
allowed the study to control for parents with similar backgrounds who displayed equal
motivation to improve their children's education, say researchers.
Nearly 21,000 New York families applied for the 1,300 scholarships worth about $1,400
per year over three years. Scholarship recipients were determined by lottery.