A recent study tracking the performance of urban schoolchildren who'd been given the opportunity to attend private schools was not an unqualified boost for government education vouchers.
It found impressive gains among black students who received privately funded tuition grants awarded by lottery in three cities. They outpaced peers who also applied for the grants but failed to win them. The difference was an average 6.3 points on standardized exams.
Obviously, better schools can help lift the academic performance of black children. But are vouchers to private schools the only way to do that?
The advantages experienced by the children in private schools included smaller classes, a more disciplined atmosphere, more emphasis on homework, and greater parental involvement. These elements are not exclusive to private schools.
Exceptional public schools - including publicly funded charter schools and special academies - make a point of trying to build them into their operation. But since public governance of urban schools is often difficult to reform, that makes vouchers for black children all the more appealing.
One surprising finding in this study, even to its authors, was that not all kids showed improvement. White and Latino children in private schools showed no comparable test-score leap. This may indicate that black kids leaving deficient schools have the most to gain from better ones.
The disparity also suggests that voucher programs, should they become more widespread, would have widely varied impact and appeal.
Such studies are useful as different parts of the United States experiment with vouchers, and their legality is tested in courts.
But the US is a long way from giving up on public schools, especially in urban areas. Parents and political leaders can still push for educational reforms that emphasize academic basics and accountability - and that build as much choice and quality as possible into the public system.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society