Column: Our unnoticed successes

By Brian Pierce

About a month ago I wrote a column entitled “Government Not the Enemy,” in which I put forth my view that the current public antipathy toward government is a danger to our society.

In it, I said that solutions offered by political philosophies like libertarianism that advocate limited government would “run the risk of forsaking all that so-called ‘big government’ has achieved.”

That was Jan. 25. On the 27, with providential timing, an article ran in the New York Times that provided a concrete example of one such achievement.

There is a conventional wisdom in our country that public education is in a state of disrepair. It is part of a broader conventional wisdom that the private sector is a place of innovation and efficiency, and the public sector is a place of stagnation and unwieldy bureaucracy.

The conventional wisdom is usually right, but one of the jobs of a columnist is to point out the occasional instances when it goes astray and to challenge it before it hardens in the collective consciousness of our society. This is such an instance.

The New York Times article that appeared in January highlighted a large-scale, government-financed study conducted here at the University by Professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski. The study examined the differences in quality of education between public and private schools.

The raw data, the study says, reinforces the conventional wisdom.

Private school students have consistently performed better than public school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The national assessment is given to fourth and eighth-graders and in 2003 was given to 340,000 students in 13,000 public, private and charter schools. This is 10 times more students than in any previous test, giving researchers more data on the subject than ever before.

The study looked at math scores, which are generally a more accurate barometer of a school’s overall quality.

But when researchers used advanced statistical methods that took into account income and home circumstances, the data showed that students in public schools do as well or better than students in private and charter schools.

For example, the raw data reflects a 14.3-point advantage held by students in Roman Catholic schools over students in public schools, but when student background was taken into account, public school students outscored Roman Catholic school students by 3.4 points (10 points is roughly equivalent to a grade level).

According to the article, charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly financed, did “significantly worse than public schools in the fourth grade,” and were statistically equivalent in eighth grade.

This report shows that the problem society perceives in the public education system is really a reflection of broader societal inequities, not an inadequacy on the part of the government to effectively run an education system.

There are those who say that public education is suffering from an affliction for which there is no cure.

The only solution is to conduct a kind of triage for our nation’s children, using vouchers and charter schools to send salvageable students to private institutions.

But the reality is that no matter what school a kid who is raised by a single mother in an inner city surrounded by drugs and gangs goes to, he’s going to face more challenges than a kid who grows up in a stable family with a steady income in a safe environment.

Public schools face serious challenges and dramatic inequalities. We must attack those inequalities. One way of doing that is to stop funding schools through property taxes, which only serves to reinforce a cycle of poverty and expand the gap between rich and poor.

But our government cannot be allowed to turn its back on equal opportunity and other qualities it is responsible for ensuring, or cynicism and defeatism will become everlasting sentiments of our political culture.

We can do better, and we are doing better. We need only recognize that fact and foster it for future generations.

Brian Pierce is a junior in LAS. He celebrates debauchery on a regular basis. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]