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The Downside of School Choice

Frustrated and angry over the glacial improvement of public schools, reformers demand parental choice as a catalyst for change. It's a seductive argument, but it doesn't tell the entire story, as the news out of Milwaukee attests  ("The Vacant School Buildings That Made Milwaukee Infamous," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 25).

Since the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in 1990, enrollment in its public schools has declined. In 1998, there were about 98,185 students; today there are roughly 71,304.  Clearly, reformers claim, parents are voting with their feet about the education that they deem best meets the needs and interests of their children.

But these numbers and others like them are misleading if educational quality for all students is the real goal, rather than some other agenda.

First, researchers typically compare standardized test scores of students in choice schools with standardized test scores of students in nearby traditional public schools.  In such comparisons, choice school students usually do better.  What is given short shrift, however, is that although choice schools cannot deny enrollment to a student on the basis of disability, they have no legal requirement to meet a student's special needs.  In the 2012-13 school year, 1.5 percent of students in Milwaukee choice schools had disabilities.  This compares with about 20 percent in traditional public schools. As a result, traditional public schools have become the schools of last resort.

Second, students in choice schools represent a self-selected group.  They are there because their parents were involved enough in their education in the first place to have made the effort to apply for admission. This alone signals at least a minimal level of commitment.  Parents then are required to abide by certain rules in order for their children to avoid jeopardizing their enrollment. Traditional public schools have no such freedom.  By law, they must accept all who show up at their door, and can expel only for the most egregious behavior.  To control for self-selection, researchers typically compare students who won a lottery for admission to a choice school with lottery losers. The problem with this approach is that it can be applied only to schools popular enough to require a lottery and that maintain good records.

Third, parents in Milwaukee and elsewhere do not always make academics their No. 1 consideration in choosing a school.  Social, logistic, holistic and administrative reasons often are given as great or greater weight in their decision. Therefore, it's wrong to assume that the loss in enrollment in traditional public schools is due solely to the quality of the academic program.

But above and beyond these facts, I wonder if the U.S. is willing to allow social Darwinism to prevail. Parents with the means and sophistication always seem to find a suitable school for their children, while other parents are left to accept whatever is left over. Those abandoned deserve more but get less.

To address this inequity, Sen. Lamar Alexander introduced a bill to give 11 million students from low-income familes federal dollars to spend on any accredited school ("Bill to Offer an Option To Give Vouchers," The New York Times, Jan. 28). Each eligible student would receive on average about $2,100.  I know that reformers will praise this strategy, but I doubt it will make any greater difference than the vouchers and scholarships that already exist in about a third of the states. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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