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Q&A: School choice critics attack private schools over curriculum issues 

CKI scholar Matthew Ladner counters charges that private schools fail to offer students a wide-ranging education

Opponents of school choice in North Carolina are attacking the curricula in private schools. They argue that Opportunity Scholarship vouchers steer students toward schools that prepare them inadequately for college-level coursework or certain careers. One person who has heard this argument before in other parts of the country is Matthew Ladner, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute. Ladner addressed the concerns during an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Head to http://www.carolinajournal.com/radio/ to find recent CJ Radio episodes.)

MK: This is one of the more popular arguments right now against the school voucher program in North Carolina — the Opportunity Scholarship Program. “Hey, these private schools that are taking these students, they just don’t have good curricula. We should not be sending tax dollars to these schools.” You have heard this in other attacks on private school choice.   

ML: I have, yeah. It’s a hot topic in Florida right now, for instance. I would say that people should be more focused on not curricula, but rather outcomes, right? And there is a lot of … I don’t see any other word to use but “prejudice.” There’s this prejudicial notion that private schools won’t teach science. I have even seen news articles from Florida newspapers where people are talking about hillbilly science and snake handling and all this stuff.  

There is one source of testing data that actually allows us to compare science scores for both private and public school students. And unfortunately, we can’t get this at the state level, but we can get it at the regional level. So I have looked at the private school science scores in the American South, compared to the public school scores. And what you see, consistently, is the private school students perform at a higher level on science, display higher levels of science achievement and knowledge than the public school students.  

So it’s really not a basis on which you’d want to deny families freedom and opportunity to choose the sort of school they want to send their child to.   

MK: Why do you think we’re hearing this argument?  

ML: I think that opponents of parents being able to direct their children to the schools that best fit their needs make a lot of different arguments. They come in different flavors. At the end of the day, there is an urge on the part of some people that think that we ought to standardize the education of children, … that everyone needs to be doing the same thing. And then there are others of us who think that there should be variety and diversity in education and that we should allow families to direct students to the best-fit schools, right? That’s not necessarily “the best” school based on something like standardized test scores because people’s needs are much more varied than that.  

The bottom line is that every bit of testing data that anyone could get their hands on, in terms of science, indicates that the private schools are teaching science to their kids. Or I should put it this way: If you want to use science scores as a justification to get rid of school choice, the river is going to have to flow both ways, and we’re going to have to say, “What’s going on with the public schools because their science scores are lower?   

MK: There was a study recently, led by the League of Women Voters, that dealt with this issue in North Carolina, and the vouchers, and talking about the curricula. It came out at about the same time as a research study from N.C. State University that showed our school vouchers were having a positive and statistically significant impact on low-income students and their student achievement. That probably sounds a lot more in line with what you’re hearing in other states, as well?  

ML: Yeah. There’s a tremendous amount of empirical research around the country showing that when families have the opportunity to choose schools, that it’s actually mutually beneficial — that the process by which parents exercise these choices actually has a beneficial impact on the test scores and the performance of the public schools.  

I think that it’s pretty obvious, if we were starting a schooling system from scratch, that what we would not do is want to have schooling exclusively done by government entities with a monopoly and not allow anyone to go anywhere else. That is a recipe for a lot of the problems that we actually do see. 

Public education is that funding is guaranteed in all state constitutions. … I assume that if we had a poll of the public in North Carolina, we’d find overwhelming support for that notion. But the fact that the public is going to provide funding for education does not mean that it should be the exclusive provider of that education. And this is crucially important.  

If you go back and read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, he has a chapter about education. He describes it as being of unspeakable importance that civil society takes a leading role in providing education. Because otherwise he describes what would happen is, is that schooling will simply become what he describes as a “mold,” that there will be a tyranny of the mind, and that we’ll simply be shaping people in the mold, whether that mold is controlled by a king, or bishops, or the majority opinion of the day.   

And that impulse is ultimately illiberal. We need to be tolerant of people having differences of opinion — about science, about other things — and allowing sort of a peaceful coexistence rather than yield to this urge to try to make everything the same. 

MK: One of the things that we’ve talked about, about North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, is the fact that our General Assembly has built in additional funding year after year, going out for about the next eight to 10 years, until the program is substantially larger than it is now. Based on what you know about how school vouchers are working across the country, are they setting us on the right path there? 

ML: Yeah. In fact, I understand that despite the regular funding increases that there are also wait lists. There are more parents that want into these programs than the funding will allow, even with the increases. The evidence is pretty clear that providing families with opportunities is a source of K-12 improvement that you cannot get from any other source. There are other strategies that states do to try to improve K-12 outcomes. They have a mixed record, I would say. But these strategies are always top-down. Freedom and opportunity [are] bottom-up.

It gets down to the basic fact that no one knows the individual needs and aspirations and hopes of a child better than the child’s own family. And that sorting process where maybe your oldest child is a musician and would like to attend an arts-focused school, and maybe your younger child is more focused on science and technology and engineering. A lot of what we’re seeing around the country is getting away from the idea that one size fits all.