Is private school necessarily better?

Just try telling Mayra Gonzalez that many of the private schools in New York City don't perform much better than the public ones. Ms. Gonzalez pulled all three of her sons out of public school two years ago when she obtained private vouchers allowing them to attend a parochial school.

"Forget about it," she says of the change since her boys transferred to Holy Cross School in the Bronx. In terms of study habits and behavior, she says, "everything is different, everything is better."

But some observers are questioning the happy assurance of parents like Gonzalez. Earlier this month, just 55 percent of the fourth-grade students tested in New York's private schools were able to meet proficiency standards on a tough new state test. The passing rate in public schools was almost the same, at 52 percent.

The similarity in performance is giving new energy to an increasingly heated debate over the use of public vouchers, which allow families to use public funds for private school. Currently, just two cities - Milwaukee and Cleveland -have such programs. Florida will start a statewide voucher program in 2000.

Proponents have long argued that parents in neighborhoods with poor schools should have the choice to send their children to private schools. But to voucher opponents, the results in New York challenge the common assumption that private school is usually better. And they're sounding a cautionary note against rushing to exit the public schools at public expense - particularly if the private alternatives do not offer a substantially better education.

"It's not a simplistic fix just to give kids vouchers to go to private schools," says Jan Atwell, associate director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a New York City-based group that monitors school performance. What's really needed, she says, is a harder look at the crisis in learning that grips public and private schools alike.

Not all schools participated

The pass-fail rates reflect little if anything about the state's more elite private establishments. Only about 75 percent of private schools participated in the test. The majority of the more-exclusive schools, which might have produced higher scores, abstained.

Of the 1,024 schools that did participate, the bulk were religious schools, many of which serve economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Those lower-tuition, service-oriented schools are the ones most likely to attract voucher students.

In New York, some questions remain about the nature of the state test. Some critics complain the exam was too difficult, and preparation for it uneven. As a result, they say, the scores this first year are inconclusive.

Yet the questions aroused by those results are not new ones. John Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, tracked students participating in Milwaukee's voucher program, and concluded that they showed no significant academic gain over students who remained in public school.

Professor Witte's study, has been controversial. Some private Milwaukee schools have also demonstrated healthy gains for inner-city students. At the Bruce-Guadalupe School, for example -a private school whose enrollment swelled with an influx of public school students after vouchers became available - 80 percent of third-graders last year scored at or above grade level on state tests.

At the same time, many parents like Gonzalez say it misses the point to scrutinize test scores too closely. Gonzalez insists she's not troubled in the slightest by the fact that a majority of students at Holy Cross scored below state standards.

The more-serious atmosphere at Holy Cross and the individual attention her sons get from their teachers have transformed them from students who struggle to ones who thrive, she says. "In public school they played around a lot," she recalls. "Now their math, reading, and writing have improved. They do homework."

She says she's heard that "the school has a problem with scores." But "I have no problem. I see the difference in my kids and I'm happy."

One crucial question to be answered before judging a school like Holy Cross on its test results, says Chuck O'Malley, a private school consultant based in Annapolis, Md., is "how many students transferred in [from the public schools] in the last year or two?"

He says academic improvement is often best tracked in the early stages by anecdotes rather than statistics. A good environment can transform a struggling student, he says, but "the school doesn't work the miracle in just a year or two or even three. It takes a little time."

A better means of assessing a private school, says Valerie Lee, a professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has written on parochial schools, would be to "look at how the scores have changed over the time the kids have been in the school." A simple comparison of public scores with private scores is "quite problematic."

Gauging parental satisfaction

Parent satisfaction, she points out, "is an important indicator." After all, she adds, "Test scores are not everything."

And they are perhaps not even the most important factor to be considered in the debate over vouchers, suggest some who argue that freedom of choice is also essential. What many parents are looking for, says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, is simply "a sense that the school you send your child to will do the right thing for your child."

Many parents want a private-school atmosphere because "there's a culture there that is an important one to parents," says Ms. Christie. "Character education and discipline are a large part of that. They want their kids in a structure that supports strong moral values."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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