Private Schools Teach Bad Science? Public Schools Teach Science Badly.

bad science

People on the political left often complain about the small fraction of students in America who go to private schools that teach some bad science (creationism and the like). Americans do struggle with science–conservatives with evolution, liberals with heliocentrism–so this is an important issue.

It comes up most frequently in the context of voucher programs and school choice, allegedly as an argument why school choice is unconstitutional or subversive of education, because parents might make the “wrong” choice for their kids. Good thing those nice friendly legislators, bureaucrats, and unions are there to set you dumb parents straight.

While I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that school choice also threatens the bureaucracy’s budget, politicians’ power, and unions’ monopoly, it is interesting to note that this concern about the quality of science education stops before the doors of America’s public schools.

Want more proof our schools are failing at science? Look no further. 78% of Americans either endorse creationism or an "intelligent design" version of evolution. 90% go to public school.
Want more proof our schools are failing at science? Look no further. 78% of Americans either endorse creationism or an “intelligent design” version of evolution. 90% go to public school.

In Politico, Stephanie Simon cants about $1 billion that goes to private schools in 14 states, including–brace yourselves–literally hundreds of religious schools, with thousands of students, some of which teach creationism. But she spends no time at all talking about the fifty million students in 100,000 public schools who are taught science badly–or not at all.

A study in Science found nearly two-thirds of biology teachers skip evolution altogether, more than a tenth openly promote “intelligent design,” and less than a third consistently teach evolution. Is it any wonder that 46% of Americans are creationists? Moreover, a new report by the US Department of Education has discovered that “a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II; a third of these schools do not offer chemistry.”

Government at all levels will spend $664 billion on primary and secondary education this year, with the result that only one in five high school seniors will be proficient in science. As my former Reason colleague Lisa Snell points out, for minority students and those in poor areas, it’s much lower. Only 4% of African American and 8% of Hispanic high school seniors are proficient in science, while at the fourth grade level, barely five percent of students in Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore are proficient.

This is the national scandal that should capture our attention, not red herring sensationalism about a “billion dollars for creationism”–which, as Matt Ladner points out, is much less than the entire annual budget for one school district in Dallas.

Spending per pupil has exploded while tests scores have stagnated.

The American education system is broken and bankrupt, and the culprits are lucrative union contracts and the flawed “throw money at it” strategy endorsed by the political establishment–not private schools offering parents a way out.

Empirical research suggests that poor students who are given the chance to opt into private schools do better and graduate at higher rates. But even if it didn’t, just what could it hurt to try experimenting? Students are already failing at spectacular rates.

The current approach of more spending, more regulations, more standardized tests, and less choice hasn’t helped students any. Give parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their kids–they could hardly do worse than the politicians have done for them.

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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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