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Maybe Parents Aren't Dopes

For nearly two decades, one of the striking findings in school choice research is that parents are hugely positive about schools of choice even when the test results show only modest benefits for their kids. In some circles, particularly among education professors, this has led to various lamentations about what dopes parents are. (Now, I think people are frequently dopey, but it seems to me there are also other viable explanations here.)

Charter and school voucher advocates haven't exactly covered themselves in glory when answering these concerns. A big chunk of the charter community has embraced death-grip regulation based on reading and math scores--presuming that parents are indeed dopes, and easily suckered. Meanwhile, libertarian choice enthusiasts argue that what parents choose for their kids is none of our business (though they should recall Milton Friedman's observation that the state has an obligation to safeguard minors, and perhaps ask themselves how much support you'll win championing the right of parents to feed lead paint chips to their kids). For what it's worth, seems to me there's a sensible middle ground that values quality-conscious authorizing and performance metrics but that doesn't imagine that reading and math scores are the be-all and end-all when it comes to gauging schools.

Directly relevant here is the intriguing new National Bureau of Economic Research paper "School Choice, School Quality and Postsecondary Attainment." What economists David Deming, Justine Hastings, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger find is that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (CMS) open-enrollment initiative, which launched in 2001, yielded surprisingly substantial long-term gains for the participating students. They were able to track the results for nearly 20,000 students after high school graduation, and reported that students who won the lottery to attend a school outside their own neighborhood were more likely "to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor's degree. They are twice as likely to earn a degree from an elite university." The researchers found no evidence of "cream skimming," and noted that lottery winners closed nearly a quarter of the black-white difference in college completion.

Maybe parents aren't dopes. Maybe reading and math scores, at least on today's assessments, are actually muddy measures of how much kids are benefiting. Maybe parents who express high levels of satisfaction with choice see that their kids are better behaved and more focused, disciplined, and academically engaged. Maybe they judge that this gives their kids a much better shot at a bright future, even if their short-term reading and math scores aren't moving a lot. (After all, one of the seminal findings from James Coleman's 1980s research on Catholic schools was that low-income, African-American students who attended parochial schools were vastly more likely to make it to college than were otherwise similar students in the public school system).

Now, let's be clear. I don't know that any of this is true. But it seems as viable as the "parents are dopes" hypothesis. Yet school choice researchers have been so focused for two decades on examining whether choice lifts test scores that they've not yet spent much time exploring just why it is that parental satisfaction seems to so dramatically exceed the test score evidence. On the bright side that just means there are huge opportunities ahead. So, guys, how about it?

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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