GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Fastens Onto Public Funds For Private Schools

Nevada gubernatorial candidate Dan Schwartz has planted his pennon securely on the so-called “Educational Savings Account” hill.  [RGJ] Schwartz’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned even though ESAs are of highly questionable constitutionality.

“Schwartz, a Republican who currently holds the office of state treasurer, told reporters in Las Vegas while announcing his candidacy that, if elected, he would not sign any bills from the Legislature without first seeing an “acceptable” ESA bill on his desk.” [RGJ]

The ESA program failed to secure enough support for enhancement in the last session of the legislature, which instead enacted tax credits for scholarships.  The “school choice” advocates saw this as a blow to their advocacy goals — specifically to the proposition that private schools are ‘better’ than public ones.  Perhaps it’s time to review the issues raised by the opponents?

The narrative, as framed by the proponents, is that private education is (1) better and (2) parents should have a choice to send their children to private schools.  The first proposition is dubious.  Private schools do send more of their students to college, but the reason may well be (and often is) that the schools themselves are selective in the first place.  When considering NCES reports on achievement the following caveat is of extreme importance, which is why it is reprinted here in full:

“When interpreting the results from any of these analyses, it should be borne in mind that private schools constitute a heterogeneous category and may differ from one another as much as they differ from public schools. Public schools also constitute a heterogeneous category. Consequently, an overall comparison of the two types of schools is of modest utility. The more focused comparisons conducted as part of this study may be of greater value. However, interpretations of the results should take into account the variability due to the relatively small sizes of the samples drawn from each category of private school, as well as the possible bias introduced by the differential participation rates across private school categories.

There are a number of other caveats. First, the conclusions pertain to national estimates. Results based on a survey of schools in a particular jurisdiction may differ. Second, the data are obtained from an observational study rather than a randomized experiment, so the estimated effects should not be interpreted in terms of causal relationships. In particular, private schools are “schools of choice.” Without further information, such as measures of prior achievement, there is no way to determine how patterns of self-selection may have affected the estimates presented. That is, the estimates of the average difference in school mean scores are confounded with average differences in the student populations, which are not fully captured by the selected student characteristics employed in this analysis.”  (emphasis added)

Those “patterns of self-selection” are “not fully captured” when the results of testing are reported, or this can be stated as: How private schools select attendees and the population from which they are drawn leaves some wide open questions about the conclusions offered on the effectiveness of instruction in private vs. public schools.

Secondly, the notion that there is no “school choice” at present is misleading in itself.  There is school choice, any parent may send a child to a public school, a private school, or choose to home school — the question is who pays for this.  What the “choice advocates” are saying is that taxpayers should fund the choice of a family to send children to private schools. A tangential argument is often raised that we should ‘expand the number of families who can choose to send children to private schools.’  Left unspoken are some of the practical issues — private schools can limit their enrollment, and if enrollment is limited then what of that “choice” being offered to their parents? Unlike public schools, private ones may select who is accepted for enrollment.  The decision not to offer special educations services is essentially self-selective.  There are some rural areas in which private education at the elementary and secondary level is non-existent or very limited.  In these instances there are few if any choices to be had.  Previous posts, here and here have addressed this issue in more detail.  (See also “Testing Turmoil,” and more on Schwartz’s previous advocacy here.)

Schwartz appears ready to ride this well worn draft horse throughout the campaign season.  It has some appeal — to those who sincerely wish to provide a religiously based curriculum for their offspring as well as to those who sincerely wish their children didn’t have to attend schools with members of other communities with whom they have little in common.  Compared to the economy, taxation, and other more relevant issues, this isn’t usually at the top of any voter’s list of primary concerns and Schwartz’s selection of it is more dog whistle (to ultra-conservatives) than a bull horn to the majority of Nevada voters.

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