Students in public schools performed nearly as well as those in private schools, while eighth graders in conservative Christian schools were actually behind their public school counterparts in math, according to a new study.

The U.S. Education Department report released Friday compared test scores for math and reading of fourth- and eighth-grade students in private and public schools. Overall, scores were higher in private schools, but when adjusted for factors including race, disability, eligibility for reduced lunch prices, whether students are learning English, number of books in the home and absenteeism, the presumably advantageous “private school effect” all but disappeared.

“With no adjustment for differences among students, the average of the mean [National Assessment of Educational Progress] reading scores is higher among private schools than among public schools. However, when student covariates are included in the model, the averages of the adjusted school means for the two types of schools are not significantly different,” the report says.

The report came out on a Friday afternoon without a press conference, prompting charges the White House wanted to bury the study because it doesn’t bolster the administration’s support for charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools as alternatives to failing public schools.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said if the results had been unfavorable to public education, “there would have been press conferences and glowing statements about private schools.”

“The administration has been giving public schools a beating since the beginning,” Weaver said in the New York Times.

The current administration isn’t the first to give public schools a hard time. A blue-ribbon commissioned appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 issued a scathing report titled “A Nation at Risk.” It warned in part “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and prompted subsequent calls for education reform.

Then-President George Bush convened a governors’ conference on education in 1989, directly inspired by the report. Thirteen years later his son signed the No Child Left Behind legislation into law.

Many educators criticize No Child Left Behind for a one-size-fits-all approach, overemphasis on testing and punitive policies against students and schools. It also is underfunded by about $40 billion, with additional cuts pending before Congress.

The 2.8 million-member NEA, at its recent convention in Orlando, Fla., launched a grassroots campaign calling for fundamental reform of No Child Left Behind, which is up for reauthorization by Congress in 2007.

Friday’s report found that in fourth grade, reading scores in private schools were nearly 15 points higher than those in public schools. When adjusted for race and other factors, however, the average scores “are not significantly different.”

The disparity was smaller for fourth-grade math scores, where raw scores for private schools averaged about eight points higher than public schools, but that advantage also disappeared when the additional variables were factored in.

Similar results were found in comparisons of test scores for eight graders, except that students in conservative Christian schools on average scored about eight points below their public-school counterparts, after adjustment.

“When school means are adjusted for differences in student characteristics,” the study says, “conservative Christian schools have lower adjusted mean scores, on average, than public schools.”

About 10 percent of the entire school population, nearly 5.3 million students, attended private schools during the 2001-2002 school year. The NEA’s Weaver said the new study shows that America’s public schools are “doing an outstanding job.”

The study, conducted by Educational Testing Service and contracted by the National Center for Education Statistics, warned against reading too much into the findings. The study concerns only observed data, and not experimentation, and does not account for factors such as whether there are systemic differences in families that enroll their children in private schools, prior achievement or how long students attended public school before parents decided to pull them out.

Critics of the method used in the study said it distorts the data and is being promoted by “people who don’t like school choice.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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