Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an op/ed by Mitch Pearlstein (Test results add up to a good case for school vouchers). Here, Growth & Justice Research and Policy Director Angela Eilers responds.A word of caution to readers of Mitch Pearlstein’s recent call for school vouchers. In this era of evidence-based justification for spending public dollars, we should be wary of comparing an apple to a basket of oranges in advancing a public policy idea. In the fruit basket of ideas, we also should be especially cautious in using cherry-picked data points to support ideological claims.
Mr. Pearlstein holds up the educational outcomes of one private Catholic K-8 school against the entire Minneapolis Public School district, implicitly suggesting that one K-8 school is a convincing sample size. He also holds up the tuition of private Catholic schools against per pupil spending in an urban E-12 district (MPS) to demonstrate cost differences. Inherent in this argument is that public schools should be able to produce better results for less money—as if a K-8 apple weighs the same as district-wide basket.
For example, tuition costs for Catholic schools are often held down because teacher’s annual salaries average $25,000, due in part to the fact that some nuns take no salary at all. Further, private schools (Catholic or otherwise) are not legally obligated to educate all children including children with special needs. One special needs child alone can sometimes cost thousands of dollars above and beyond the averaged per pupil expenditure (in Minnesota average expenditures on a special needs student can be as much as an additional $3,000 depending on the services needed). Public schools are legally bound to educate all children whether they can afford to or not. Most parochial schools cannot afford to educate these populations, nor do they have the faculty or facilities to do so. The scholars Mr. Pearlstein cites (Howell and Peterson) acknowledge this fact in the opening chapter of their book, The Education Gap.
Whether school vouchers to Catholic schools are a cost effective way of closing the achievement gap is certainly a reasonable empirical question worthy of serious examination by the Center of the American Experiment, especially if the cost analysis includes all children. Other school options should certainly be given consideration in the cost effective analysis. However, let’s separate ideology from evidence.
To that end, with our Rethinking Public Education project, Growth & Justice is examining evidence of best practices in closing the achievement gap and getting Minnesota’s students to achieve at rigorous levels. We are examining the cost effectiveness of implementing best practices along the educational continuum (early childhood through post-secondary), and we’ve assembled a statewide stakeholder committee to oversee research to be conducted by national education scholars and economists asking a rather simple question: Which effective educational practices yield the greatest rate of return on state tax dollars?
We — like Mr. Pearlstein — appreciate the urgency, moral imperative and value of providing Minnesota’s children a meaningful and complete education. If he and his Center can supply methodologically sound evidence on practices that close the achievement gap and provide a complete education to all children, their contributions will be welcome.