Civil Liberties

Bridging the racial divide


Kwanza Steele, along with parents of roughly 900 children in D.C. private elementary schools, got some good news recently. A team of Harvard researchers released a study of the Washington Scholarship Fund(WSF), a private voucher program that provides partial scholarships to D.C. parents seeking an alternative to the city's public schools. After only six months in private schools, the researchers found that African-American scholarship students who moved into private schools in second to fifth grade outperformed their peers in public schools by 6 percentage points in math and 3 percentage points in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. (Ninety-five percent of WSF students are African-American.)

The study found that private schools outperform public schools in other areas as well, including safety, class size, parent-to-school communications, and, perhaps most important, overall satisfaction. One in two private school parents give their schools an "A" grade, compared to one in eight public school parents.

Since a persistent gap between black and white students is one of the most troubling findings of social science, the marked and rapid improvement of test scores is sure to get the most attention. "Many people think that eliminating the differences in test performance between blacks and whites is key to achieving equal opportunity for all Americans," says study co-author Paul E. Peterson of Harvard. "If the initial findings from D.C. hold up over time, vouchers for students beginning in elementary school may help eliminate the black-white test-score gap."

The D.C. findings don't seem to be a fluke, as Mr. Peterson and his colleagues found basically the same results when they looked at a similar scholarship program in Dayton, Ohio. This sounds sweet to Kwanza, whose son Myles plans on being the next Arthur Ashe but in the meantime attends kindergarten at First Rock Baptist Church Christian School. Although he was too young to be included in the study, Myles should outperform those in the study, since he already enjoys a head start on those who transferred from public schools.

Kwanza, who graduated from Eastern High School in 1993, doesn't need outside experts to sell her on the advantages of private education. She wanted her son in small classes and was particularly concerned about safety. "I'm real protective of him," she told me in August, two weeks before Myles' first day in kindergarten. "You hear about kids bringing BB guns to school. I don't want to take a chance of getting the call, 'Ms. Steele, Myles has been injured.' "

Six months into the school year, Kwanza couldn't be happier with Myles' school. "It's perfect," she says. "I don't have a bad word to say about the school." Myles brings work home four nights a week in reading, math, mixing and matching, and telling time. "He shows a lot of progress," says Kwanza. Unfortunately, progress is not a word that characterizes the experience of one group of private school students: Those who transferred in after many years in public education. For students who entered private schools in grades 6 through 8, the study paints a portrait of academic struggle and behavioral problems. These students outpaced their public school counterparts in math by two points, but scored 8 points lower on reading. And they acted up. One in five were suspended, compared to three in 100 public school students.

This is sad, but not surprising. Private school principals have long known that older children tote heavy baggage from years spent in public schools. "The kids that come from public schools are very behind," says Shirley Hayes, the principal of Nannie Helen Burroughs School, which educates 200 pre-K through seventh grade students atop a hill in D.C.'s far northeast corner.

So if all the news isn't good, enough of it is to give D.C. parents hope, and to cause politicians to ponder policy changes. The WSF expanded significantly in 1997, after President Clinton vetoed a bill that would have provided 1,800 D.C. students with $3,200 scholarships, nearly double the WSF amount. As the success of the program becomes more widely known, that sort of thinking may come back to haunt politicians.

Presidential hopeful Al Gore, for whom avoiding D.C. public schools is a family tradition, is a rigid opponent of school choice. Mr. Gore worries that universal scholarships would damage public schools by allowing parents to choose to leave the ones that don't meet their children's needs.

Kwanza Steele takes issue with Mr. Gore's desire to keep children in public schools. "Al Gore doesn't know how hard we have it," says Kwanza. "He doesn't have the full facts because he sent his kids to private schools."