For many school choice supporters, enrollment growth across many sectors is reason to cheer. But new research may give policymakers pause about whether they’re pursuing the options that result in the best academic outcomes.
William Jeynes, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, and a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, found students in religious schools were, on average, a full year ahead of their peers in traditional public and charter schools. After controlling for parental involvement, income, race and gender, the students were, on average, seven months ahead.
The findings, recently published in the Peabody Journal of Education, were based on a first-of-its-kind meta-analysis of 90 studies that compared academic performance across the three sectors. Jeynes also found:
- Even wider gaps between black and Hispanic students in religious schools and their public school counterparts.
- Smaller racial achievement gaps in religious schools.
- Fewer behavior problems among students in religious schools.
- Little difference in academic performance or behavior issues between students in traditional public schools and students in charter schools.
The implications for school choice, he said, are obvious.
“It really seems in terms of school choice that this nation has decided to throw all kinds of resources at developing charter schools but has really overlooked the broader approach to school choice,” Jeynes said in a phone interview. “We really ought to include private schools.”
Between 2002 and 2010, enrollment in private schools – and most private schools are religious schools – fell from 5.4 million to 4.5 million. Charter school enrollment nearly tripled over that span, to 1.8 million. Meanwhile, the number of students using vouchers and tax credit scholarships now stands at a modest 245,000.
Jeynes is an Assembly of God minister. He’s also an academic researcher with a master’s from Harvard and a Ph.D from the University of Chicago. He offered a couple of reasons why private religious schools may perform better.
Reason one: Higher expectations with a spiritual bent. In many religious schools, he said, there is an attitude “that God doesn’t make junk.”
“You can’t say, “God doesn’t make junk” in a public school,” he said. “There’s something about that. It’s not just saying, ‘You can do it.’ It’s that ‘Hey, you have a creator who made you, and he made you well, so you can do this.’ “
Reason two: Love. In private religious schools, “there’s much more emphasis on what I call the most feared four letter word in the public sector and that is love,” Jeynes said. “What we see in the self report of (religious school) students are … that they feel the teachers are much more caring and willing to work with you on an individual basis – much more than you get in the public schools.”
Jeynes said he was surprised by the charter school results. Some charters have used their flexibility to adopt features of private religious schools, such as an emphasis on character education and more responsiveness to parents. But in Jeynes’ analysis, that didn’t translate into traction.
“Perhaps some of the qualities that make private religious schools better are not as easy to imitate,” Jeynes said.
That has implications on the school choice debate, too.
On the one hand, Jeynes said, the data suggest privately funded school choice options should be given more consideration and support. “If there is a certain group of schools that is reaching inner city kids and doing a better job at it, we should rejoice at it, no matter our religious affiliation,” he said.
On the other hand, the government needs to exercise care in how it regulates choice so it doesn’t “chip away at the very qualities of faith based schools that makes them so successful.”