ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Late on a recent Friday afternoon, with no fanfare, the government released the results of a study comparing the performance of students in public schools to those in private schools. It showed that public school students did pretty well. Critics of the Bush administration say that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings buried the report for fear that it would undermine the president's long-standing support for private schools and vouchers. Well, Secretary Spellings says that's absurd.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Jack Jennings, a former aide to Democrats on Capitol Hill, heads the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank. Like many public education advocates, he's thrilled by the findings in the government's new report.
JACK JENNINGS: This is the first government report that I am aware of, a government sponsored report, that has looked at this key question, are private schools better than public schools in terms of delivering higher reading and math scores? And what they found was yes, they are. Private schools do deliver higher reading and math scores than public schools. However, when you control for student characteristics such as their racial background, their income background, whether they're on the school lunch program and so on, what they have found in general is that there is no great difference.
SANCHEZ: And this, says Jennings, is big news because it counters the widely held view that private schools are inherently superior to public schools and that the best way to break up the so-called public school monopoly is to push more kids into private schools through vouchers and tax credits, policies that the Bush administration fervently supports.
JENNINGS: The bottom line is that this report has news that's inconvenient and uncomfortable for the administration. They didn't want it to have full disclosure and they've been caught at it. This is politics. It's not policy. It's just politics.
SANCHEZ: No, says U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, it's not politics.
Reporters weren't buying it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
Unidentified Woman: We can't all fit in one room.
SANCHEZ: At the unveiling of a national school voucher proposal sponsored by Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week, Spellings was peppered with questions about the findings and why an important study was quietly released with no media advisory or news release on a Friday, when fewer people are paying attention to the news.
Spellings's response? The study, titled Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical Linear Modeling, apparently was part of a long internal memo that Spellings says didn't grab anybody's attention.
MARGARET SPELLINGS: And, you know, it certainly was overlooked in this internal memo and, you know, my philosophy about putting reports out of the Department of Education is we shouldn't do it on Friday.
SANCHEZ: Next question, did she or anyone on her staff know about the study's release date ahead of time?
No, said Spellings.
RUSS WHITEHURST: Yes. They knew two weeks ago.
SANCHEZ: Russ Whitehurst heads the Institute for Education Sciences, which oversees educational research for the U.S. Education Department. He says Secretary Spellings's office had the study well before its release.
WHITEHURST: We, by tradition and policy, give the senior officers in the department two weeks notice and the opportunity to review an impending publication before it's released.
SANCHEZ: Why didn't government researchers flag the study given its political importance? Because, says Whitehurst, researchers and analysts have no business trying to figure out a study's political implications.
WHITEHURST: And we by design don't arrange to release our reports at times that we think are politically convenient or inconvenient for any particular person. We try to stay above the fray in that sense and let people make of our reports what they want.
SANCHEZ: In her brief exchange with reporters, Spellings bristled when asked if she was downplaying the study by not celebrating the good news about public school students.
SPELLINGS: I celebrate public schools every single day I am Secretary, and we need to do a whole lot more of it.
SANCHEZ: But, Spellings added, parents with kids in failing public schools also need choices, including private schools, regardless of one government study's findings.
SPELLINGS: And so, you know, I don't know that we'll ever have, you know, a conclusive understanding about the quality of every single school. But what I think is important here is that parents see - how is this school meeting my own child's needs?
SANCHEZ: Still, former political appointees who have worked at the Education Department say of course politics influences how and when the Department goes public with important research data.
CHESTER FINN: Damaging data, unwelcome data, are not going to be touted by any administration, no matter who's in office. You don't make a big deal about data you don't like.
SANCHEZ: From 1985 to 1988, Chester Finn served in the Reagan and Bush administrations as an assistant secretary of education. Until recently, he was a welcome advisor to administration officials on matters such as vouchers and school choice.
FINN: But I have no idea Margaret knew or when she knew it, the classic Washington formulation, but they probably aren't thrilled at the political level with what the numbers show.
SANCHEZ: In her first official comments about the study, Secretary Spellings this afternoon sent NPR this statement.
"This study, while it does contain noteworthy findings, is an academic comparison of averages and does not provide families the tools to make real- world choices about their children's education." And next time an important report on this or any other controversial topic is due, Spellings has promised it won't be released on a Friday afternoon.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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