Would Vouchers Destroy Educational Freedom?


High School Achievement: Public, Catholic and Private Schools Compared, by James S. Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, and Sally Kilgore, New York: Basic Books, 1982, 289 pp., $20.75

James S. Coleman, the well-known social scientist at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, has been the center of controversy since 1966 when the first Coleman Report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, was issued. That report led to the disastrous national policy of forced busing in an attempt to achieve racial balance in the public schools. A new report, Public and Private Schools, now released in book form as High School Achievement, may lead to an even greater disaster: the destruction of private education as we now know it.

Not that Coleman is in favor of the results that have been or may be the consequences of implementing his findings. In the case of the first report, Coleman and his colleagues found that per-pupil school expenditures, compensatory education programs, or bigger libraries showed less relation to a student's achievement than did peer environment. It was found that blacks got better test scores in schools where the higher proportion of students were white.

This oversimplified peer-effect idea became the justification for forced busing. The 1967 Report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited the Coleman Report as its primary source in deprecating the role of compensatory education for "disadvantaged" children and advocating in its place a national "racial- balancing law" for the schools.

It is quite possible that Coleman's report would not have had the devastating impact it had on American public schools if the Civil Rights Commission had not been waiting in the wings to use it. But, after all, the study had been done under a grant from the US Office of Education. It was supposed to help the policy planners formulate policy. And that is what it did.

Similar dangers lurk in the background of the present report, which has already been widely debated and discussed among social scientists and educators since its initial release in April 1981. Coleman and his colleagues studied public schools, Catholic schools, and other private schools and found, much to no one's amazement, that private schools do a better job of teaching students than do public schools.

The report presented some other interesting findings: that 26.1 percent of the secondary schools in the United States are private and that only 9.1 percent of the students in grades 9 through 12 attend private schools; that 29.5 percent of the private schools are Catholic, but that 66.5 percent of all private school students attend them.

On the matter of enrollment by race, 12.2 percent of the students in public high schools are black; 5.5 percent are black in Catholic schools; and 4.1 percent are black in other private schools. Thus, in proportion to whites, there are half as many blacks in private schools as in public schools. But the real surprise is in distribution. Over half of the black students in the private sector attend schools that are less than 20 percent black, but only a fifth of the public schools' black students attend such schools. About 45 percent of the black students in the public sector attend predominantly black schools, compared to 17 percent in the private sector. Thus, there is actually a higher degree of true racial integration in the private sector than in the public.

Also, contrary to common belief, the degree of economic segregation is lower in the private sector as a whole than in the public. Well-to-do white children attend suburban public high schools with few blacks, whereas black children in private schools are more likely than their counterparts in public schools to have white classmates from higher-income families.

In other words, the exclusive prep school for the rich is not your typical private school. In fact, 80 percent of private-sector students are in schools affiliated with some religious denomination, indicating that religion rather than social class is the common denominator. As for income level, most of the students in the private sector come from families with economic backgrounds not greatly different from those served by the public schools.

Thus, myths about private schools being socially divisive or racially segregated are shattered by this report. In fact, Coleman has made the private schools look so good that they may become the irresistible envy of those who would like to destroy them.

Already, state departments of education, through prodding from the National Education Association (NEA) and other advocates of a government monopoly on education, are writing new regulations for private schools in order to force them to use state-certified teachers and approved curricula. What will happen if a voucher plan is adopted?

The fact that minorities perform academically better in private schools, enjoy greater integration, and have classmates with a wider range of social backgrounds suggests to some social engineers that the best way to achieve the national goal of equal educational opportunity for minorities is through a voucher plan. By funneling government money through parents who can send their children to the school of their choice, a voucher plan, it is thought, will enable more minority students to attend private schools.

But the only way to get the NEA, the teachers' unions, and the educational bureaucrats to go along with a voucher plan is to assure them that their present power will in no way be jeopardized. Indeed, if it can be shown to them that their influence and power will increase through a voucher plan, that they will once more be able to control all of those kids who have escaped them into private schools, the educationists might even enthusiastically endorse it.

And that is the chief danger that Coleman's report creates for private education. No one doubts that regulations will accompany a voucher plan. The question is, How much regulation will there be,and what will it do to educational freedom?

One astute critic, considering the consequences of regulation, wrote in the Harvard Educational Review, "In time, private schools may come to resemble public ones and thus lose their distinctive characteristics." He also pointed out that many private schools "will have to choose between the advantages of additional financial resources and the disadvantages of government entanglement."

So advocates of vouchers or tuition tax credits must ask themselves if, as stated by another critic, "it is possible to design a system of public support for private education that retains the American commitment to equality of opportunity," satisfies the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and the bureaucrats, "and at the same time allows private schools the flexibility to function effectively." Or, to put the question another way, can statist and bureaucratic social goals and policies be made compatible with the values and exercise of educational freedom? The answer from this reviewer is unequivocally no.

Public education is the great Trojan horse in American society. It is a weapon that statists have built, piece by piece, in our midst, benign-looking on the outside, but deadly within. It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous threat to freedom in our society. Any measures that threaten to weaken or eradicate the remaining tenuous freedom and autonomy of private schools should be resisted at all costs.

It may be argued that private schools that do not accept public support will remain free. But we already know that many Christian fundamentalist schools that want nothing from the government are under attack from the bureaucrats and regulators. Some church schools have actually been closed and their administrators put in jail for refusing to bow down to state regulation. If this is what is done to church schools that accept no public support, what chance will freedom have in those schools that willingly accept the shackles of regulation? And when we speak of freedom we must include religious freedom, for 80 percent of all private school students attend schools connected with a religious denomination.

Of course, Coleman and his coauthors do not see the problem in these terms. They merely want to see parents provided with a "greater range of choices of institutional settings" for their adolescents. If that's all that's really needed or wanted, must we destroy private education in the process?

Samuel Blumenfeld is the author of Is Public Education Necessary? and other books.