Public v. Private Schools: A Reality Check on the BCPS

So how are vouchers doing?” asks columnist Clarence Page in a March 15 piece in the Baltimore Sun, preposterously titled, “A Reality Check on School Vouchers.” “Unfortunately,” he opines sternly, “the marketplace produces disasters along with miracles.” School choice falls into the former category, apparently. Two — yes, two — of the private schools participating in Milwaukee’s well known school-choice program have gone under, fumes Mr. Page, leaving parents “scrambling to find another school.”

But at least in Milwaukee, parents are permitted to look around for another school. No such luck for poor parents whose children are locked into the public schools’ monopoly. This is why Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke deserves praise indeed for his March 7 creation of a task force to explore school-choice options for Baltimore City. Of course, public school teachers themselves often exercise school choice. Almost half of the city’s public school teachers earning $70,000 annually send their children to private schools. What’s good for the goose must surely be good for the gander. So the mayor’s gesture presents an opportunity that school-choice proponents must not squander.

The usual cries will be heard: “What about the separation of church and state?” “Private schools are elitist!” There is not a shred of merit to any of this, naturally. One need only point out that government money is habitually fed to religious entities — Baltimore’s Associated Catholic Charities, for instance — to provide social services or education. Government aid to higher-education students is routinely spent at religiously affiliated colleges.

The Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) system is pleased with itself because test scores in most categories at most grade levels improved from 1994 to 1995, according to the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) survey. A look at the details reveals that the percentage of pupils passing the third-grade reading test did indeed increase — from 9.2 percent to 12.1 percent. A similar story is told for writing: 16.0 percent in 1994; 17.4 percent in 1995. The news was not all good, if such a word can be used for these dismal improvements. Fifth-grade reading declined, from 10.0 percent passing to 9.6 percent. Likewise, the figures for eighth-grade writing dropped from 15.3 percent to 13.8 percent. All told, an average of 14.3 percent of Baltimore students at all grades tested passed their MSPAP tests. That’s all.

Have we truly reached the sorry point where the news that twelve percent of Baltimore third-graders can read at a “satisfactory” level is cause for joy? Is exuberance really called for when we hear that thirteen percent of eighth-graders passed science?

Yet, we find time to criticize private schools.

This has nothing to do with money. In constant 1994 dollars, the BCPS budget has increased relentlessly, from $534,149,805 in fiscal 1990 to $612,102,855 in fiscal 1996. This is a real increase of 14.6 percent over seven years. In 1995, nine school districts — there are 24 in total, including Baltimore City — spent less per pupil than the city. Yet all these districts — Allegany, Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Washington and Wicomico counties — fared far better in terms of student achievement, as measured by the percentage of students passing all eleventh-grade “Maryland Functional Tests.” Meanwhile, Montgomery County spent the highest per pupil of any Maryland school district ($7,539). Nonetheless, no fewer than 17 counties scored better than or as well as Montgomery in the eleventh-grade functional tests. One of these was Cecil County, whose students performed best in the state, with 98.9 percent passing the eleventh-grade functional tests. Interestingly, Cecil County spent the sixth-lowest amount per pupil of all school districts ($5,477).

There are a number of reasons why Baltimore school children do so appallingly in school, none of which can be solved by ever greater infusions of taxpayer cash into the public-school edifice. Looming large is these children’s social environment. But no amount of extra school spending will make inner-city children come from any less broken families. As President Theodore Roosevelt used to say, “A school is a useful adjunct to a home, but a wretched substitute for a home.” Though the enhanced discipline to be found in private schools can ameliorate the problem to some degree, the necessary disciplinary and academic structure cannot be found within the current public-sector educational system in cities. Private schools still teach values and discipline. These are topics taboo with many public-education establishmenteers.

The very form into which public schools have evolved does not lend itself to this sort of discussion. Unlike the private system, the public school system has developed into one of the most heavily unionized sectors in America. There is a a heavy penchant for administration over pedagogy, according to many researchers. Militantly opposed to merit pay, the teachers’ unions — mainly the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — have secured a seniority system that rewards time serving over innovation. More telling still is the NEA’s opposition to competency testing as a condition for becoming a teacher. Need more be said?

Meanwhile, only twelve percent of Baltimore third-graders can read properly.

The contrast with the private educational sector is stunning. According to education consultant Denis P. Doyle, in school year (SY) 1990-1991, there were 24,690 non-public schools across America: 8,731 of them Catholic; 11,476, other religions; 4,483, non-sectarian; and 1,498 affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools. The latter includes the expensive prep schools that usually come to mind at the mention of the term “private education.” These NAIS institutions only make up 6.1 percent of private schools.

Given how few NAIS schools there are, it should come as no surprise to find out that private schools are demographically far more like everyday America than they are usually given credit for. Of the 26,807 private schools operational nationwide in SY 1987-1988, no fewer than 3,697 (13.8 percent) had over 50 percent minority enrollment. Among Catholic schools, 1,736 of the total of 9,527 (18.2 percent) were “majority minority.”

Not only are private schools not the all-white bastions we often conceive them to be, not all are terribly expensive, either. In fact, they are on average far cheaper than public schools. In SY 1990-1991, America spent $5,177 on the average elementary public-school student, and $6,472 on each secondary school student. By contrast, tuition in the average private elementary school was $1,780; in the average private secondary school, $4,995. For Catholic schools, the numbers were lower still: $1,243 for elementary schools and $2,878 for secondary schools.

Even those tony NAIS schools are pretty reasonable. At $5,066 on average, NAIS elementary schools were in SY 1990-1991 cheaper than public elementary schools. NAIS secondary schools were, at $7,306 per pupil, more expensive than the average public secondary school — though still cheaper than today’s public schools in Montgomery County.

Once again, then, it should not astonish us to find out that urban public school teachers know a good deal when they see one. Nationally, 13.1 percent of American families sent their children to private schools in 1990, while a comparable 12.1 percent of public school teachers did so. In cities, however, we see a different story. In 1990, for instance, in Baltimore 18.1 percent of the general public selected private schools. But among BCPS teachers that figure almost doubled, with 31.7 percent of public school teachers choosing private schools for their children. The figure was particularly acute for white Baltimore public school teachers, 61.5 percent of whom used private schools in 1990. For black BCPS teachers, the figure was 20.9 percent. For Baltimore public school teachers of all races earning more than $70,000 annually, the private-school option was selected by 48.0 percent.

So, if private schools are good enough for Baltimore public school teachers, why are they not good enough for the poor? For make no mistake about it: Practically speaking, it is only the poor who are denied the school choice middle-class Americans take for granted. Even for suburban-dwelling Marylanders sending their children to public school, there is always the option to sell up and move house if the schools are not satisfactory. The wealthy, of course, may send their children wherever they please. This is not news. It was noted two years ago by House of Delegates Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings (D-Baltimore City) when he unsuccessfully tried to initiate a school-choice pilot project in the city.

The mayor has acted admirably. His task-force members must likewise be bold and empower the poor. When attacked by public-sector monopolists, they must not shrink. On behalf of the needy, they must ask the North Avenue establishment, “If you send your kids to private school, why won’t you let me send mine?”

A former education researcher at the Heritage Foundation, Dr. Munro is the co-director and CEO of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research.

Note: Nothing herein is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views or stated policy positions of the board of trustees or the board of advisors of the Calvert Institute, nor as an attempt to hinder or aid any legislation.

This article may be reproduced in part or in full, provided that due acknowledgement is given and correct citation made, noting it to be part of the Calvert Comment series.

Editor: D.P. Munro
Graphics & Layout: D.P. Munro

Editorial Board:
Sherine H. Centenari
Ronald W. Dworkin
Douglas W. Hamilton, Jr.
Carol L.Hirschburg
Douglas P. Munro

Posted in: Comment, Education