December 2013 Church & State | People & Events

It’s an article of faith among vouch­er advocates that private Cath­olic schools are superior to public institutions, and this claim is often used to bolster pro-voucher arguments.

A study released in late October, however, casts doubt on this assertion. The study found that Catholic schools do not provide a superior education to public schools, undermining claims by voucher advocates.

The analysis, which was headed by Michigan State University econo­mist Todd Elder, found that students at Cath­o­lic schools don’t show prog­ress in reading or math, whereas their public school peers did show math score improvement over time. Cath­olic schools al­so fail to produce better behavioral outcomes among their students based on an examination of absences, suspen­sions, tardiness and repeating grades, the university said on its website.

The study looked at about 7,000 students who started kindergarten at Catholic schools in the 1998-1999 school year. Their scores were examined in kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade and eighth grade.

On average, math scores for Catho­lic school students fell from 62 percent in kindergarten to 57 percent by eighth grade. But for public school students, average math scores rose from 47 percent in kindergarten to 49 percent by eighth grade.

The “huge gap” in scores can probably be explained, Elder concluded, based on the status of families who send their kids to Catholic schools.

“What you see is that the kids who go to Catholic schools are much, much different the day they walk in the door than the kids who go to public schools,” he said.

Elder added that other studies have shown that Catholic school students do better academically than public school students, but those surveys failed to take into account that students at Catholic schools usually have a head start from kindergarten over their peers in public schools thanks to their socio-economic status.

The study offered a possible explanation for why Catholic school students do worse in math over time: Their teachers get paid considerably less than those at public schools, by as much as 45 percent on average.

“Some people say Catholic schools are doing more with less,” Elder said. “But these findings suggest they’re not doing more with less – that they may, in fact, be doing less with less.”

The study is significant because Catholic schools are often the beneficiary of state voucher programs, and proponents of such schemes frequently claim that Catholic and other private schools offer a superior education and environment to public schools.

In related news, a new book by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher A. Lubienski suggests that public schools offer a better education than private ones.

In The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, the authors argue that public schools are better than private ones in part because public institutions are more open to new ideas on education.

“It appears that there is a danger in the autonomy that private schools have,” Sarah Lubienski told The Atlan­tic. “The teachers aren’t required to be certified, there is less professional development happening, they’re not held accountable to the same kinds of state curriculum standards and tests. And so when we look at scores on those things it just makes sense that the schools who are hiring teachers who are certified and have been educated in a way that helps them understand all the current educa­tional reforms and the research on learning—that those teachers would be more effective.”