Department of Education Ignores Politically Inconvenient Study on School Performance

Published Jul 21, 2006

In July 2006, Department of Education officials announced a $100 million proposal to fund vouchers for poor children to attend private schools, while at the same time keeping quiet about a study released just days earlier that showed private schools to be no more effective at educating children than public schools.

The study, commissioned by the DOE's National Center for Education Statistics, looked at 2003 math and reading scores from nearly 7,000 public schools and more than 530 private schools. The study concluded that public school students were performing as well as, and in some cases even better than, private school students from similar backgrounds.¹ These findings conflicted with the Bush Administration's position that handing out vouchers to attend private and parochial schools is the best way to educate poor children who attend failing public schools.

The DOE report compared reading and math scores from public and private school children in 4th and 8th grades. The study found that although private school students did score better in the aggregate, public school students did as well or better when the results were adjusted for students/ backgrounds. Eighth grade reading scores were the one exception where private school students scored significantly higher than public school students of similar backgrounds. The report also found that "Conservative Christian" schools performed significantly worse than either public or other private schools in eight-grade mathematics.² 

In response to the study, the Department of Education did not hold a press conference to celebrate the success of public schools, nor did it issue a press release to announce the study's findings. The New York Times notes that the study was released on a "summer Friday. . . without a news conference or comment from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings."³   Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, asserted that if the study's findings had shown private and religious schools to be better at educating poor children, "there would have been press conferences and glowing statements about private schools."4As it was, the Education Department effectively dropped the report into what Weaver termed a "black hole."  

1. National Center for Education Statistics, "Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling," U.S. Department of Education, July 2006, accessed December 5, 2006.
2. Ibid.
3. Diana Jean Schemo, "Study Bolsters Public Schools," New York Times, 14 July 2006, accessed December 5, 2006.
4. Ibid.