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The School Choice Debate

The case for charter schools is often made by showcasing charter schools that are doing a good job of meeting the needs of low-income, minority students—usually in urban districts.  Opponents often respond by pointing to regular public schools whose performance is no less impressive.  There are, of course, good schools of both types, but that fact does not have much bearing on the debate as to whether the expansion of charter schools is good public policy.

What does have a bearing on that debate is the question as to whether the expansion of charters is likely to improve or depress student performance on average.  What the research shows is that, within the United States, the average performance of charter schools on the one hand and regular public schools on the other is about the same overall when we compare schools with students from similar backgrounds.

It is useful to think of the market for public charters, however, as very different in urban districts, the suburbs and outlying rural areas.  The strongest arguments for and the greatest numbers of charters can be found in urban districts, where, in effect, it is argued that charters can offer better schools to urban-dwelling families than the regular public schools. Whether that is true or not is strongly correlated with the kind and strength of the regulatory regime.  The record shows that strong, wise regulation of charters can produce significant gains for students in urban districts, though, typically, their performance still often falls far short of the performance of their peers in the surrounding suburbs.  

There are few charter schools in the suburbs, because, overall, most parents are pretty satisfied with the regular public schools in their communities.  In rural areas, the density of the population is so low that it is often simply not possible to create a functional market.

Globally, the research shows that, net net, the use of choice systems produces little change or even a slight decline in average student performance and a substantial increase in school-to-school differences in performance. This is because choice is more likely to be exercised by parents with more education and more financial resources than by parents who have less of these things.  It is also because, in the United States, because of the design of our accountability systems but also because of the need to attract students and the funding that comes with them, the charter schools generally have both the incentive and the opportunity to push out students who are very expensive or exceptionally difficult to serve—an option that is not so available to the regular public schools.  Studies that show an advantage in student performance for charters in the cities often fail to take account of this phenomenon and therefore understate the degree to which the successful performance of the charters comes at the expense of students still in the regular public schools.

The theoretical basis for choice systems in education policy comes from economics: the idea that competition will result in better services at lower cost than services provided by a monopoly. But economists point out that there are certain services essential to the smooth functioning of a modern economy that will not be supplied in sufficient quantity and quality by a purely market economy.  We call such services "public goods."  I don't benefit when you buy a Rolls-Royce, but I do benefit when your son or daughter gets a good education.  Your uneducated children are going to cost me much more in tax dollars to support more prisons, emergency room care and food pantries than if they were well educated. And, if they were well educated, they would be paying more taxes that would provide for better highways, airports, and air traffic controllers—making my life much safer and more pleasant. So, it matters when a charter school improves its record by pushing out its lowest-performing students, not just to that student and her family, but also to the society as a whole.

The strongest proponents of choice as a strategy for education reform banked on the proposition that, given choices, parents everywhere would choose the schools that offer the best performance.  But this has turned out not to be true.  Parents, first and foremost, want a safe school.  They do not want a school that is far from their home.  Many want secondary schools with strong competitive sports records.  Some want their own kids to go to the schools they went to.  Students want to go to the schools their friends go to.  Relative school performance on formal measures of the sort that states are now posting are often not the most important consideration for a large number of parents or students.  If the argument for charters is based on the idea that parents, left to their own devices, will select the most effective schools for their students, it is important to note that there is not very much evidence to support that proposition except among the best-educated and wealthiest families.

The market for vouchers is very different.  The voucher market is made up mainly of parents who wish to send their children to religious schools and are now required to do so with their own funds.  The policy question here is whether the public wants to relieve them of the burden of paying to send their children to the religious school of their choice when a free public school is available.  For two centuries, the United States has answered this question in the negative.

The most sensitive issue with respect to vouchers is whether they will be used to break down the intense social and racial isolation the United States is now suffering from or simply offer an opportunity for some inner-city students to go to a better school in a struggling community while leaving others to sink even further into the morass.  When the students in Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut can take their vouchers into the very wealthy communities around those cities, their prospects will improve substantially. If their parents get the opportunity to move into those wealthy communities and send their children to the schools now serving the wealthy, those children's prospects will improve dramatically. It is not clear whether the country is ready to entertain such propositions.  Vouchers are, of course, not the only way to address this issue.  The isolation we have now is possible only because we have tied a student's right to go to a certain school to the amount their parents can afford to pay for their housing.  Break that link, and the isolation as well as school-to-school variation in performance within a state would rapidly decrease, with or without vouchers.

What are the bottom lines here?  

If you place a much higher value on choice in a democratic society than on improving student achievement or reducing the gap between the performance of low-income students and those with higher incomes, then you should favor an aggressive system of vouchers, charters and other choice mechanisms—and you can do that with weak regulation. However, do not be surprised if average student performance declines and the gap between high performers and low performers increases. 

If you value choice as a democratic value but also value strong student achievement in your state and want to close the gaps, you may want policies that offer more choices, but you need to be sure that such choice exists only under a regime of strong regulation that will ensure that student performance will not suffer overall and gaps in performance between low-income and high-income students are increased as little as possible.

If, with respect to school choice, you are mainly interested in offering better school choices to inner-city parents whose current choices are dismal, in the expectation that their children's performance will improve, you should be aware that you will succeed only if you put a strong regulatory regime in place and, even then, the very features of that regime that are intended to improve the performance of the schools of choice can also create strong incentives to push out the students who are the most difficult or expensive to educate.  So, try to build a system that will minimize that effect.

If you are concerned that the United States is far behind the world's leaders in student achievement, choice is irrelevant.  No country, state or province has succeeded in using choice policies as a strategy for vaulting their students into the ranks of the world's top performers or for greatly reducing the gap between their top performers and their struggling students.  If that is your goal, you will have to do what the top performers—and that includes Massachusetts—have done.  You will have to do all the things required to turn teaching into a high-status profession employing first-class professionals, reorganize your schools as truly professional workplaces, provide plenty of support to families with young children, build a world-class instructional system—with world-class standards, a carefully thought-through curriculum and high-quality assessments—and take your career and technical education system out of the hiding place you put it in years ago and reinvent it for the digital age.  You'll have to change the way you finance your schools and the way you govern them, too.  There's more, but that should be enough to get you started.  And there is plenty of evidence to show that it works.

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