Now that the Supreme Court has found tuition vouchers constitutional, school-choice programs will blossom nationwide. This is superb news for poor, largely minority students, especially in the long term.
Abundant research shows what private-education tends swiftly to offer boys and girls lucky enough to escape moribund government classrooms: higher standards, rising test scores, and safer surroundings.
However, such public-private comparisons seem to stop after 12th grade. Some students graduate, some don’t and down comes the statistical curtain.
How about the rest of the story? What happens to students who flee inferior government campuses for private high schools? How do these two groups differ, five, 10, or even 20 years after they turn the tassels on their high-school mortar boards?
The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis (CDA) tried to answer this question for me. This new service deploys detailed databases and expert statisticians to research public policy issues. “We want to be the Congressional Budget Office of the free-market movement,” says CDA economist Rea Hederman.
The CDA’s Kirk Johnson and Xiaomei Tan consulted the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The NLSY includes 12,686 young men and women born between 1957 and 1964. They were interviewed annually between 1979 and 1994, then biennially through 2000. These follow-up questions let researchers track these individuals’ educational and socio-economic progress. “The information provided by respondents,” Johnson and Tan explain, “can be considered representative of all men and women born in the late 1950s and early 1960s and living in the United States during the past two decades.”
These data demonstrate that among the NLSY population, the privately educated outflanked those in public schools and — most significantly — continue to do so.
Among public-school students surveyed, 9.4 percent dropped out. Only 2.6 percent of private school students in NLSY never finished the 12th grade.
In college, 25.6 percent of public high-school graduates eventually completed four years of study. Their private-school counterparts more than doubled that number, with 52.2 percent of them earning bachelor’s degrees.
In 2000, private-school graduates averaged approximately $43,200 in wages and salaries versus $29,800 for public-school alumni, a $13,400 difference. Even more dramatic, net family income was $78,400 for the former and $53,000 for the latter, a $25,400 gap.
Private high-school graduates are likelier to be professionals, technicians, managers, proprietors and salesmen. Their public-school counterparts more likely are craftsmen, laborers, farmers and service workers.
Remember, these results are for Americans who were in high school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Given the inadequacies that subsequently have mushroomed among government schools, it’s a safe bet that a similar study launched today would detect even wider long-term disparities in academic and professional achievement between public high-school students and the 8 percent of their peers at private campuses.
Obviously, there are decent public secondary schools and dodgy private institutions. Still, these findings clearly indicate that private schools graduate better-prepared scholars who enjoy a higher quality of life for decades thereafter.
Private high schools also offer a gift that keeps on giving: wisdom that benefits the progeny of their alumni. “Children usually attain at least the same level of education as their parents,” Hederman observes. “This leads to a virtuous cycle and helps future generations escape the poverty trap and do better than their parents.”
If American liberals sincerely bleed for the low income, often minority children on whose behalf they claim to labor, they should embrace vouchers to help these kids escape destructive government schools and attend superior private classrooms, if they and their parents so choose.
An excellent vehicle is House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s (R, Texas) bill to offer vouchers worth up to $5,000 to 8,300 needy students in Washington, D.C.’s woeful school system. Far from a right-wing fantasy, similar proposals twice passed Congress with ayes from Democratic senators including Louisiana’s John Breaux and Mary Landrieu and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman.
Too bad Bill Clinton vetoed those measures. President Bush surely would make the third time the charm. Americans who genuinely want today’s victims of government schools to improve their life prospects should demand that Congress send such groundbreaking, high-profile legislation to the president for his immediate signature.