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

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.

The argument mostly revolves around voucher programs, supposedly proving that 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.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that school choice also threatens the bureaucracy’s budget, politicians’ power, and unions’ monopoly, but 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.

For instance, at 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 a hundred thousand public schools who are taught science badly — or not at all.

A study in Science found that 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 Reason‘s Lisa Snell points out, for minority students and those in poor areas, it’s much lower. Only four percent of African-American and eight percent of Hispanic high school seniors are proficient in science; barely five percent of all fourth graders in Detroit, Cleveland, and Baltimore are proficient.

This is the national scandal that should capture our attention, not some sensationalist red herring about a “billion dollars for creationism” — which, as Matt Ladner points out, is significantly 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.