NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last week, a study came out that challenges the assumption that private schools are inherently better than public schools. When factors like race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds are taken into account, the study says students at public and private schools do just about the same on math and science tests.

Private schools, generally, have smaller classes, more teacher attention, more resources per student, and, of course, if parents are paying all that money, it must be because their kids get a better education.

The report, commissioned by the Department of Education, raises important questions about policy. For example, the Bush administration supports vouchers that use public funds to transfer kids into private schools. The report also concludes that charter schools, another administration favorite, are no better than regular public schools.

Later on in the program, Murray Horwitz returns with our second annual summer film festival. This year, we begin with Captain Queeg, Gordon Gekko, and that devil who wears Prada. What's your favorite boss-from-hell movie? You can send us e-mail now. The address is talk@npr.org.

But first, public versus private schools. Where do you send your kids and why? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Our first guest is Diana Schemo. She's The New York Times national correspondent for education. She's with us by phone from her office here in Washington, where she's based. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. DIANA SCHEMO (Education Correspondent, The New York Times): Good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: The secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, announced the results of this study at the end of the day last Friday, timing that critics suggest was meant to bury this report as much as possible.

Ms. SCHEMO: Well, actually, Neal, the report was not released by Margaret Spellings, herself. She had no comment; or rather she was unavailable for comment. The report was - we were notified of the report's existence through a kind of maybe one-paragraph notice that's typically sent out by the National Center for Education Statistics, so it's not quite a press release. And it came out, actually, Friday morning at 10:00.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: Stuff was posted on the Web, and anybody who sort of managed to fish this e-mail out of their inbox - and it actually went out to 11,000...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: ...people, so it wasn't exactly buried in that sense.

CONAN: Not exactly trumpeted either.

Ms. SCHEMO: Not trumpeted at all, no. Yeah, I have to concede that it was not trumpeted at all. And, you know, the findings, essentially, you know, were pretty much, you know, as you described them. It looked at reading and mathematics, the children in public versus private schools, fourth and eighth grades, and found that the kids in public school did, when you compared - when you controlled for socioeconomic background and education of the parents, race, et cetera, they found that when you compared sort of apples and apples, like children to like children, that fourth graders did as well in reading as the kids in the private school. In math, they actually did better than the children in private schools. And when you looked at eighth grade, the children in private schools did somewhat better in reading, but in math they were pretty much the same.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: No real difference.

CONAN: How much of a surprise was that?

Ms. SCHEMO: Well, you know, we had been - people who cover education had been hearing that this was going to come out for quite a while now, and there had been an earlier study looking just at the math scores, which found the same things. And that came out a few months ago, so it wasn't an entire surprise.

And now we're all waiting on a similar report on - comparing public and charter schools, which should be coming out some time - now we're - we had been told, when this report came out, that it would come out later in August. Now we're hearing possibly September, so that report is long awaited.

CONAN: Hmm. Now the study did look also - lumped in with private schools were religious schools: Catholic schools, Lutheran schools, and sort of born-again, fundamentalist Christian schools.

Ms. SCHEMO: Yes, it did. And the surprising finding was that the conservative Christian schools actually did no better than the public schools on any measure. In other words, the eighth-grade reading, which was the one place where the private schools excelled - you know, did better than the public schools - that did not hold true when you actually looked at the conservative Christian schools. And they, in fact, they just didn't seem to - they didn't really seem to hold their own against public schools very well in that regard. But I think, you know, in many cases, parents who are sending their children to, you know, particularly religious schools are looking at other things.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: They're looking at character. They're looking at, you know, religious beliefs, and they're looking to have other things reinforced and not just the academics. So it's sort of a tossup how much of an impact this kind of a report is going to have on any individual parent.

CONAN: On their decisions. There were, we should mention, also, some important caveats...

Ms. SCHEMO: Yes.

CONAN: ...put out about the study.

Ms. SCHEMO: Yes. Yes, there were. And the caveats actually were more lengthy than I've ever seen on any of these kinds of reports. And I talked to one of the authors yesterday, and he said the caveats were not really any bigger than he had originally written, because this did go through a lengthy review process once it was handed into the government. It was done by the ETS, the Educational Testing Service. So he said that it wasn't so much that the caveats were much bigger than they were, it was just they were all moved to one place up front, so they looked like a lot more.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: But some of those caveats were that the samples are based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That's a test that's given across the nation. So in that sense, it's very good. You can compare people in every state, but it's not given to every student in every state. It's given to a sample of students in public schools and private schools, and so you really can't make individual school comparisons. That's one caveat.

And the other important caveat is that this doesn't really tell us anything about how students progress which, for most parents, is kind of the important question. What it's telling us is that, you know, this is where students are in the different settings.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHEMO: But it's not telling us, for example, a student who comes in really deficient in reading, is he going to do better in a private or a public school? You know, you could sort of extrapolate, but it's not quite the data you would want to answer that question.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And finally, what's been the reaction to this from the various educational groups?

Ms. SCHEMO: Well, you know, the thing that always interests me about covering education is actually how little learning goes on, because there's a tendency in education - it's like most of politics these days. It's very polarized, and people on either side of an issue very seldom look at data and say, gee, I didn't know that before, and that's going to - I'm going to reconsider my position on this or that. And this sort of falls into that category.

People who are supporting vouchers and who are advocates - or who work for private schools, basically, talk - point to the limitations of the report and say, you know, hey, it's not longitudinal, meaning it's not telling you how individual kids do.

CONAN: Right.

Ms. SCHEMO: It's not every school. It's, you know, it's a lot of kids, you know, 700,000 students at public schools and 25,000 students at private schools, so that's certainly nationally representative. But, you know, they say, well, that's not big enough and it's not detailed enough and so forth.

And the people who are, you know, working for the teachers' union, like Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association - they represent almost three million teachers - and people who are, you know, advocates for strong public schools will say, here, this proves that, you know, we're doing a pretty damn good job, and we should be putting - instead of pouring money into private schools through vouchers or, you know, pushing other forms of schools, we should be really spending all the money to strengthen the public schools because they are in fact doing, in their view, a heroic job given what they have to work with...

CONAN: Diana...

Ms. SCHEMO: ...(unintelligible) everybody.

CONAN: Hmm. Diana Jean Schemo, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. SCHEMO: Sure, thank you.

CONAN: Diana Jean Schemo, The New York Times national correspondent for education, based here in Washington. She joined us today by phone from her office.

Well, with us now is Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education policy think-tank that supports parental choice in education. They're based in Washington. He's also formerly associate assistant deputy secretary in the Office of Innovation and Improvement for the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to join us today.

Mr. MIKE PETRILLI (Vice President for National Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation): It's great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Were you surprised by this report?

Mr. PETRILLI: You know, I wasn't too surprised by the report. First of all, I don't think there's too many people who believe that private schools are inherently better than public schools. When you look at the report itself, though, you do see a lot of limitations, and some of those that Diana mentioned, but they really go beyond that.

For example, what the researchers tried to do was not only to control for the demographics of students in private schools but also for characteristics of the schools themselves; so, for example, school size or teacher quality.

So if private schools are smaller and have better teachers, they controlled for those factors. But, in fact, that's exactly the reasons that many parents choose private schools is because they are smaller and because they might be able to get better teachers. And so to rule out those factors seems like a strange part of the study. It is problematic that we don't look at students over time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PETRILLI: We're just looking at one snapshot.

CONAN: And does - nevertheless, this does deal some challenges, at least, to some of the president's policies.

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, you know, I don't know how applicable it is to this debate going on right now. The president has proposed a voucher program that would be targeted at poor students only, students who have been attending failing schools that have been failing for at least six years.

Now we do have very good research on some voucher programs in a couple of cities, including here in Washington, D.C. We've been able to track poor students who transfer from a public school to a private school, compare them to very similar students who have stayed behind in public schools, and what we find is that the students who transfer to private schools seem to do at least a little bit better; and for African-American students, it's significantly better.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PETRILLI: And so the lesson there might be that inner-city private schools, especially Catholic schools, are doing a better job educating poor kids than inner-city public schools.

CONAN: Some have said that in fact what the study seems to show is that public or private, there's a wide variety of quality of education in all systems, that you can have good private schools and not-so-good private schools, failing public schools and very good public schools.

Mr. PETRILLI: That's absolutely right, and so parents out there who choose to send their children to private schools and pay that extra tuition, they have to make sure that that school is worth the money.

CONAN: So if the issue is not public versus private, what is it, do you think?

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, the issue is of course school quality. You know, it comes down to issues like the teachers that you have in the school, you know, things that we can measure like their subject matter knowledge, things that we can't measure, like their enthusiasm and their ability to connect with students.

Now, public schools, especially in big urban systems, sometimes have some limitations in getting great teachers, especially into the neediest schools. Part of that is because the teacher union contracts that make it very hard for principals to have much flexibility, part of it is certification rules that keep some people that have great content knowledge but didn't go to an education school, that keep them out of the classroom. Private schools don't face those same barriers, and so they can be a little more innovative and bring in some great people who can do a great job teaching.

CONAN: We're talking about a study that challenges conventional thinking about public versus private schools. Which is better? We're taking your calls, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Parents spend thousands of dollars every year to send their kids to private schools assuming they will get a better education. A federal report released last week says not necessarily so. We're talking about that report, what it means for parents and students, with Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Of course, you're welcome to join us.

Do you send your kids to private schools or to public schools or to religious schools? And if so, why? 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's get a caller on the line. This is Tom(ph). Tom's calling us from Tallahassee.

TOM (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

TOM: I don't know why the administration would try to soft-pedal this report, because it seems, in some ways, it actually strengthens their hand. I know especially here in Florida, where Jeb Bush is trying to get the Class Size Amendment reversed.

He's been maintaining it's costing - it's going to cost us billions of dollars and raise our property taxes. This seems to indicate that class size doesn't really have a tremendous impact. And school vouchers, for most of the supporters, is really an issue about saving money because they don't pay the full tuition to send these kids to private schools, they just pay some of them. So every time someone uses a voucher it just saves money for the rest of the kids.

And I know from the teaching angle, it's not really - the teachers aren't really - the ones who are against school choice are mainly against it because it hurts the unions rather than it has any impact on the children whatsoever. And this report also seems to support that belief. It just doesn't seem to have a big impact. So what's wrong with giving the people a choice?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: This actually supports their contingent.

CONAN: Mike Petrilli.

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, I think Tom's making an important point. You know, in most parts of the country private schools actually don't charge very high tuition. We think of the Sidwell Friends School here in Washington, these other very elite schools that are charging $30,000 a year. But most parents that send their children to private schools, like Catholic schools, might be spending $4,000 or $5,000, $6,000 in tuition, and in many cases, less money than the public schools spend. So there is an argument to be made that private schools, if they are getting the same results as public schools, they're doing it for much less money.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's bring another voice into the conversation now, Andrew Rotherham. He's co-director of Education Sector, a nonpartisan national think-tank. He's on the Virginia Board of Education. He writes the blog eduwonk.com, and he's formerly special assistant to the president for domestic policy at the White House during the Clinton administration. He's with us today from the studios of member station WMRA in Harrisburg, Virginia. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ANDREW ROTHERHAM (Co-director, Education Sector): Thank you, Neal. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And I was wondering if you could respond to some of the questions that Tom was raising.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I think you want to be very careful, again, sort of drawing too much out of this study. I think the most striking thing about this study was how politically charged it became relative to how little it could actually tell us because of the limitations that are in it, some of the things that Diana talked about. And I don't think they were put up there in any way to sort of tamp it down. This was actually a very solid piece of research, and I think it was appropriately presented, but this is such a high stakes debate that everybody rushes to draw conclusions.

Two things jumped out at me. One, I think that Tom said that there was very relevant is, you know, the fundamental questions about school vouchers, you know, that the effectiveness of different schools these categories, public and private, are so broad that I think there's other questions that are more basic in that conversation: what kind of regulations you want to follow with public money, how much choice parents should just have.

Those are sort more fundamental questions. They have a little less to do with some of these empirical issues around this research report than just how do we want to organize public education in this country, how do we want to pay for it, and how much we want to pay for it.

The one thing that Tom said that I think we should be cautious of is there is this notion that every time a child uses a voucher to go to another school it saves the public schools money. And there's some truth to that, but at the same time the public schools have a large infrastructure, which, as a public body, we've mandated that they do; they have certain sunk costs and they have certain fixed costs. And that's not an argument against having more choice per se at all, but it is an argument we have to be realistic about; how we're going to finance these things and how the finance is actually going to work out at the school and school district level.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: And let me ask both of you in fact. Is the way the study is framed, or at least the way we're framing it, private versus public, is that the right one in your mind? Andrew Rotherham, why don't you go first.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Well, I think there's two ways to look at it. For parents, I don't think it's the right one. Because the question parents want to ask is what school is going to be a good fit for their kids and what school is going to work for their kids. And that may be a school in the traditional public sector, the public charter school sector, or it may be a private school. And so for parents, to some extent, some of these labels are a little bit meaningless. They're looking at a set of schools around where they live, around where they potentially may be living, and they're making decisions there.

In terms of policy, it's interesting - and I found the report, as I said, well done and interesting to read - but these categories are so heterogeneous. There are so many different kinds of private schools, so much diversity in the public school sector, that ultimately sort of asking, you know, how do public schools do or how do private schools do, it's a little like, Neal, like asking, you know, how do people with driver's licenses, how do they drive?

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CONAN: And the fact is you can look on the road and see a lot of variation.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Exactly.

CONAN: And, Mike Petrilli, let's get your...

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, I think it matters a lot to especially poor parents who right now don't have very many choices in our public education system. You know, affluent parents, of course, can go move to a suburb with very good schools or they can send their children to private schools that cost a lot of money.

Poor parents don't have those same choices. So right now, in most cities in this country, they cannot send their children to private school and use public tax dollars. Of course, a lot of people think that that's a good idea, that they should be able to do that. And so it does matter whether or not those private schools would do a better job educating them.

The good studies that we have that look at what happens when students switch schools from public to private in inner cities tends to show that there is a gain for those students.

CONAN: Why not send those same kids to good performing public school?

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, absolutely. But the problem, Neal, is that in most of our big city districts there are not enough good public schools to take those students. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, in fact, students in failing public schools are given the option of transferring to good public schools within the system. What we hear from every system in the country is, I'm sorry, we don't have any room in those good schools.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get another caller...

Mr. ROTHERHAM: I think...

CONAN: Go ahead. I didn't mean to interrupt.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: I think, Neal, the one thing that gets lost here is - I take Mike's point that sort of if you look at the studies around the private school choice programs, overall, they tend to show a modest impact for students who move from public schools to private schools - but the emphasis there has to be on it's a modest impact. And I think what we're arguing over, we're dancing over very small effect sizes around these different kinds of schools. And the cold hard truth is, unfortunately, when you're talking about high poverty kids, the kind of kids Mike is talking about, urban kids, no system, public or private, has shown that it's really able to sort of move their achievement significantly to where we need it to be.

That's one of the reasons we have such substantial achievement gaps between minority students and white students in the country today. And sort of rather than quibbling about some of these differences, I think we need to have an honest conversation about what's it actually going to take to deliver the kind of education that we want to for these kids, regardless of whether it's going to be in a public or private setting.

CONAN: Essien(ph) is on the phone with us from New Brunswick in New Jersey.

ESSIEN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ESSIEN: Good. I just want to just make a couple comments. One, I send my three children to public schools. The reason being is because, you know, I just feel as a taxpayer, as a citizen in this country, you know, I feel that the educational system within this country should be good. And if it's not good, then I, as a private citizen, need to address it. You know, basically go to the meetings that are held within my town and say, look, my child is not getting that he or she needs; it needs to stepped up.

Another point I'd like to make is that my mother and father, especially my mother, grew up in the southern part of country, in Georgia. And she grew up very poor, yet, you know, she was able to be educated and educated very well in a very segregated society.

You know, my grandmother didn't have much. My grandfather didn't have much. Yet she went all the way to get her master's degree in chemistry. So I'm wondering, you know, is it truly a money issue? Or is it just the - not the type of education but more of how we educate our children nowadays compared to when people like mother and father were growing up?

CONAN: Some big questions there. Mike Petrilli?

Mr. PETRILLI: I think those are some great questions, Essien.

Well, first of all, I think you make an important point. Right now in the debate in education, a lot of people argue that we're never going to make progress with student learning until poverty goes away. You know, the children growing up in poverty just can't overcome those barriers to learn at high levels. And, as you say from the example that you gave, is, for a long time, America has done a great job of taking kids growing up in poverty, giving them a strong education so they can go on and succeed. And it seems like we've lost something there.

But, you know, in terms of improving public education versus sending your children to private schools, I don't think it's an either/or. In fact, I think it's important that our public education system face some competition, which is now happening in the form of charter schools or some of these private schools, to push the public schools to get better as well. The hope is for all boats for to rise and for all children to get to go to a great school.

CONAN: Andrew Rotherham?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: I think they're great questions, too. I guess I would quibble with - I think Essien's anecdote is an important one, and there's many people who have reported stories like that. I'd quibble a little bit with what Mike said about sort of romanticizing the past, you know. We have never in this country done a really good job with low income youngsters, and there's not some sort of golden age that we're going to go back to.

In fact, I think you can argue that the public schools are actually doing as well or better than they have ever before. The problem is they're not doing as well as we need them to do - either in terms of giving students the kind of opportunities they deserve, or in terms of what the nation needs them to do in terms of the competitiveness challenge we face globally.

It's great that Essien sends his kids to public schools. I'm a product of public education. The problem comes where we can't ask all parents if they're being given options - that the public options in their community aren't working for them - we can't continue to ask them to keep making a sacrifice in the interest of public schools in terms of sacrificing their own kid. We need to make sure that we providing good public options for them. And a policy sort of predicated that parents are going to support the public schools no matter what is really, over time, a recipe for disaster for public schools.

CONAN: Essien, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ESSIEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Susan in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

I have one child, a 5-year-old. We're a middle-class family, and I have made the decision to send my child to a private Catholic school, even though the public school district where we live is rated excellent. I do not want my kindergarten child to have to go through a metal detector to go to school. I do not want police walking up and down her school hallways. I want my child to call Christmas and Halloween, Christmas and Halloween. I also want God to be a topic, not skirted around in everyday life.

That goes back, I think, the point you were making, Mike. Sometimes people make their decisions not necessarily on the quality of school, but on other factors.

Mr. PETRILLI: Absolutely. You know, I think sometimes those of us in the policy world and researchers, we lose sight of this fact that education is part of raising a child. And parents are looking for lots of things when they choose a school.

I think Susan, you know, explains that very well. They're looking for values. They want a school that reinforces the values that they're teaching at home. I think there's a lot of parents out there that feel that traditional public schools right now are not doing that.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. And we'll go to - this is J.C. J.C.'s calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

J.C. (CALLER): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

J.C.: I wanted to ask about the study and what is the difference between the results of the study when it's not controlled for socioeconomic and parental education, so on and so forth. Do we know?

CONAN: The raw numbers? Andrew Rotherham, have you taken a look?

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Yeah, that's a great question, J.C. In fact, that's the whole point of the study. When you just look at the raw numbers, what you see is a substantial advantage for private schools. And that is in part what lead to the perception that exists that private schools are consistently better than public schools, and just any time you have a choice between public or private, you'd want to choose private.

The whole point of the demographic controls that were put in is to - when you start to look and make more apples to apples comparisons, when you account for things - poverty, parental education, different things that we know effect student achievement - that the differences, they don't completely go away, but they become minimized. And I think, in terms of the study as a whole, you'd have to say they become something of a wash.

But again, within these categories, it doesn't mean there are not substantial differences. There's not terrific private schools, terrific public schools, and lousy schools in both sectors. What we're talking about here is sort of overall averages, which as I said earlier, you want to be careful about sort of drawing too much from.

CONAN: Yeah. Mike Petrilli, how do they factor this out?

Mr. PETRILLI: Well, you know, I think there's an assumption for a long time that private schools were better because of the demographics of the children. Many of us think of private schools as being these privileged, elitist schools, and so the children are wealthier and that's why they're scoring better.

And again, so we factor these things out, we account for race, we account for income - as I said, unfortunately they also account for some school factors. But, you know, I think we need to challenge that assumption.

I think in many communities - especially in middle class and lower income communities where parents are choosing private schools - it might be because their child is struggling and not succeeding in the public schools, and so they are making the sacrifice to send them to private schools. And, in fact, those students are not performing as well as their counterparts that stay behind in public schools.

CONAN: J.C., thanks for the call.

J.C.: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about public and private education. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Brian on the line. Brian calling from Cincinnati.

BRIAN (CALLER): Yeah. The comment I'd like to make is that I have a very close friend who enrolled her son in a private school, and before the year was up she was asked to take her son out because they could not meet his special education needs. And by law, every public school has to meet the needs of these children, no matter how great they are. And the private schools, they can just pick whatever children they want.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Yeah. Andrew Rotherham, yeah. There's different requirements on different kinds of schools.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: There definitely - there are different requirements, and that's one of the big questions about vouchers, that if you're going to finance private schools with public money, do you want them to have to abide by some of the same kind of admissions criteria - or, in fact, absence of admissions criteria as other public schools do? And that's a real difficult policy question. Special education is a tough issue. There are a lot of kids with special needs.

What's interesting is, in fact - and it sort of shows the overlap between the sectors - is that under the federal special education law, there are some students who are so severely disabled that the public schools can't serve them very well, and they get to attend private schools at public expense that can meet their exceptional needs. And it shows, again, that there's actually more interaction between these sectors right now than is often commonly assumed.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Thanks for the call, Brian. And let's see if we can squeeze in one more caller. This is Carrie(ph). Carrie calling from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

CARRIE (CALLER): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Of course.

CARRIE: Actually, I wanted to kind of pursue the line of thinking that two callers ago was talking about, and that is the role of family in education. And what my experience is as an educator in first private and then public schools and as a parent whose children have gone to both public and private schools -what I have found in my own experience is that the children who are successful are the children whose parents prioritize education, or who have the resources to dedicate time and energy to their child's education - not just the money to send them to private schools, but also who are willing to be involved.

And those - there is a school in my neighborhood that is failing - so-called failing, according to No Child Left Behind - and they were required to offer transfers to any of the students in their district to any other school that the students wanted to go to. And what we found was that the students who were the most successful in that school and whose parents were involved and interested in their kid's education, or who had the energy or the understanding or whatever it is - a number of them are immigrant children, their parents don't even necessarily speak English.

The children who are already the most successful were the children who left. And then the children who were left behind were the one who - I don't know, whose parents made other choices or didn't understand what the opportunities were, or I don't know exactly. They're the parents who didn't show up for Parent/Teacher nights, anyway. And so my question is, if you have a voucher program, even if it's aimed at the poorest of the poor, who are you going to be helping?

CONAN: Yeah. It's a great question. We just a few seconds left to - I'll throw it to you, Mike Petrilli.

Mr. PETRILLI: Sure. Well, the research we have from the few cities that have implemented vouchers shows that the parents that apply for these vouchers are just as poor as the parents who do not. You know, they might be slightly more motivated, but these are still very poor parents who are desperate for a good education for their children. You know, parents who've already figured out how to make the public schools work for them don't need to consider these options.

CONAN: Carrie, it's an important question. I wish we had more time to pursue it, but I wanted to thank you for the call.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking - today, we spoke with Mike Petrilli whose vice president for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, with us here in Studio Three A. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. PETRILLI: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Andrew Rotherham is co-director of the educational sector at a non-partisan think tank, and on the Virginia Board of Education. Thank you for being with us today.

Mr. ROTHERHAM: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, the return of our summer movie festival. Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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