School choice is a major issue in education as more and more states move to a charter model. We convened several experts to discuss the topic; we also covered this issue for PBS NewsHour, which you can watch above.
Andrew Coulson, Cato Institute
Listen to Mark Twain, among others, for advice
Is school choice a good thing or a threat to public education? The answer depends on how we define those terms. “School choice” can mean anything from open-enrollment, to charters, to vouchers, to moving house in search of a different school. That’s too broad a term to be useful, so I’m going to dispense with it and talk about specific policies instead.
“Public education” can simply refer to our current district-based, state-run school system; or it can refer to our shared educational ideals: universal access to a quality education that prepares children for both success in private life and participation in public life. I use “public education” in the latter sense.
As someone who is firmly committed to public education, I think it’s best to pursue it by the most effective means possible. So I spent four years in the mid-1990s studying historical school systems to discover which had done a good job of advancing our shared educational ideals, which hadn’t, and why. Subsequently, I collected and reviewed the modern scientific literature comparing different kinds of school systems all over the world, for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. And most recently, I’ve studied aspects of charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits using statistical methods — trying to answer questions raised by my earlier investigations.
What I’ve learned is that one approach to organizing and funding schools consistently does a better job than any other: a free educational marketplace driven by the choices of families, in which parents pay directly for their children’s education to the greatest extent possible, and in which educators are free to teach what and how they deem best.
How to ensure universal access to such an education marketplace? To help middle-income families, cutting their taxes has proven the best mechanism, since it preserves their freedom of choice. Such programs, called direct education tax credits, already exist in Iowa and Illinois on a small scale.
To help lower-income families who owe little or nothing in taxes (and so don’t benefit from direct credits), scholarship tax credit programs are the best solution. These programs, operating in half a dozen states, provide dollar-for-dollar tax cuts to those who donate to non-profit K-12 scholarship organizations. The scholarship organizations use the donated money to help low income families afford independent school tuition.
So, to paraphrase the apocryphal Mark Twain quote: we can’t let our current approach to public schooling get in the way of public education.
Richard Kahlenberg, The Century Foundation
Look to public magnet schools as an option
Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.
Advocates of choice are absolutely right when they suggest that poor kids stuck in failing high poverty schools deserve a chance to choose a better school. School quality shouldn’t depend upon what sort of neighborhood your parents can afford to live in, and students don’t have time to wait and hope that the latest education reform will turn around their local failing school.
But the type of choice afforded to low-income students matters enormously, and those most in vogue today — charter schools and private school vouchers — have on the whole been disappointing.
Private school vouchers, the brainchild of conservative economist Milton Friedman, have consistently produced results that are no better than the regular public schools. Vouchers raise serious questions about public accountability and the separation of church and state. And fundamentally, they undermine the ideal of the “common school,” in which children of all different backgrounds come together to learn what it means to be an American.
Charter schools, largely freed of teacher union influence, are supposed to provide a superior alternative to unionized public schools. But despite the fact that 88% of charters are nonunion, the most comprehensive study of charter schools found that they outperform regular public schools only 17% of the time. Charters could in theory be more economically and racially integrated than regular public schools — and some are — but most are actually more segregated.
Public magnet schools, by contrast, produce far better results on the whole. These schools are designed to avoid what a long line of research suggests is harmful to education: concentrations of school poverty. By attracting a healthy economic mix of students, many magnets create an environment where classmates encourage achievement, parents are actively involved in school affairs, and excellent teachers educate students to high expectations.
Low-income students can achieve when given the right kind of educational environment. Economically disadvantaged students given the chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of similar students stuck in high poverty schools on the 4th grade math portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Magnet schools recognize that school choice can be used to attack the real enemy of equal opportunity, which is not the existence of unions that give teachers voice but the reality of pervasive economic segregation in American schools.
Mike McShane, University of Arkansas
Any school can be a “public” school
Michael Q. McShane is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Prior to that, he was an inner city high school teacher in Montgomery, Alabama.
When I tell people that I do research on school choice, I tend to get a common response. It usually goes something like this: “Oh, so I guess you don’t like public education.”
Commence slamming head into desk. I (and most school choice proponents) have absolutely no problem with public schools. I just define “public” differently.
As longtime civil rights leader (and school choice supporter) Howard Fuller likes to say, public education is an idea. It is the idea that we have an obligation to provide for the education of the children of our society. Too often we confuse the idea with the mechanism we have chosen to deliver it, that is, traditional public schools. But we don’t have to keep doing that.
In my opinion, any school that serves to educate students in the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed in life can be a public school. If in addition to knowledge and skills they want to teach religion or pretty much anything else, that doesn’t really bother me, provided that parents are free to choose to send their children there. Remember, no one is forced to use a voucher or tax credit scholarship or is forced to attend a school that teaches an ideology with which they disagree.
They are, however, currently forced to send their children to schools that fail to teach their children basic literacy and numeracy if they lack the financial means to move to a better neighborhood or pay private school tuition. And what’s worse, individuals who oppose school choice actively work to keep children trapped in these schools, even when they know that the children will not learn there.
Who doesn’t like public education now?
Cassandra Hart, UC-Davis
What’s the value of vouchers?
Cassandra Hart is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. She studies education policy, with a recent focus on means-tested voucher programs.
Particularly contentious are voucher programs, which channel public resources to private schools. Skeptics of these programs charge that they aim to strip public schools of much-needed resources and attract the most capable students away from public schools, leaving public schools with the hardest-to-educate students. While some (likely small) share of voucher advocates may hold such aims, the structure and enrollment patterns of these programs suggest that they may pose less of a threat than their opponents fear.
Because universal vouchers are politically contentious, most programs have been structured to target specific populations who may otherwise face genuine difficulties obtaining high-quality education through neighborhood schools. For instance, many states target vouchers to low-income students, because while wealthier families can afford houses in good school districts, housing zoned to high-quality schools may not be affordable for poorer families. However, voucher opponents may be justified in concerns that programs will become less targeted over time; Milwaukee recently lifted income restrictions to allow participation with family incomes up to 300% of the federal poverty line (~$67,000 for a family of four).
Moreover, voucher programs have historically produced less “cream skimming” than opponents fear. Research indicates that students who participate in voucher programs are relatively disadvantaged, even among the pool of income-eligible applicants. They also tend to be lower-achieving compared to both income-eligible public school students generally and compared to other eligible students within their original public school who opt not to use vouchers. These facts suggest that fears of cream-skimming may be overblown.
While voucher programs are not as threatening as opponents fear, however, neither does research suggest that they are a silver bullet that will fix all ills of the public school system. The value of vouchers remains open for debate.
James Boutin, Public School Teacher
Are we washing our hands of impoverished communities?
James Boutin is a public school teacher in SeaTac, WA. He is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network and previously taught in public schools in New York City and Washington, DC. He blogs at An Urban Teacher’s Education.
The argument over school choice is merely another argument over which should hold primacy: the group or the individual. Is public education about providing a quality education to all students, or only to those students whose families have the means and motivation to seek it out?
Underprivileged schools contain a diverse group of students. There exist both apathetic students with staggeringly low skills and students on and above grade-level who fight desperately to learn, and, of course, so many in between. School choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools serves only one section of any given underprivileged school when it works well (i.e. when charters and vouchers actually provide a more quality education than the traditional public school). Families who are displeased with the services being provided by their local public school choose higher performing charter or private schools and leave the often poorer, lower skilled student behind. Because the quality of a given school is largely determined by the students who attend, the traditional public school often then ends up with less money to accomplish a more difficult task. This is why Richard Kahlenberg argues so effectively in favor of magnet schools.
Arguments in favor of school choice often rely on the false notion of the rational market. Douglas Harris is right to point out that it is very difficult to know what a good school is. Few parents are provided the necessary tools to make a sound judgement, particularly when the market for schools has created obscene marketing techniques in cities across the country. Charter school networks like Harlem Success Academy have been accused of targeting the easiest students to educate - i.e. screening out those with disabilities or English language learners - and counseling out those with behavioral problems. When students who come from families with means and motivation are separated from those without, a new era of school segregation has begun, one just as pernicious as pre-1954.
Now we can see clearly that public education’s underlying tension is the same as at its inception: individual determination versus the advancement of the interests of our democracy as a whole. Because studies show that negative rates of obesity, teenage pregnancy, imprisonment, crime, and social mobility are all associated with countries that maintain relatively high rates of economic inequality; and it is clear that economic inequality is strongly associated with educational advancement; I think we’d be right to worry that our current version of choice may not be in our collective best interest.
If the purpose of choice is to improve the educational outcomes of as many students as possible, then choice will have to be refashioned so that it doesn’t allow for the negative effects on public schools and public school space we’re currently seeing from Los Angeles to New York to Miami.
If, on the other hand, the purpose of providing choice is merely to wash our hands of the problems of impoverished communities by saying, “Look, we gave you a choice,” I’m afraid we’ll all be paying for that choice for a long time to come.
Doug Harris, University of Wisconsin
What is the basis for parental choice?
Douglas N. Harris is an economist and Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Education has a problem. No, not the usual ones we hear about in hyperbolic news media and political debates. The one I have in mind goes to the nature of education and the potential of reforms like school choice.
The problem is that it’s difficult to know, at present, whether any given school is good or not. Even when people agree on what “good” means, the people we typically consider to be the key educational stakeholders — parents and taxpayers — don’t actually see what happens in the classroom.
This is a big problem for school choice. Whether in the form of charter schools, vouchers, or tuition tax credits, the argument for school choice is that it lets free markets reign, allowing parents and students in failing schools to search for better options, and that schools will be freed from the shackles of bureaucratic school districts. But if parents are making decisions based on limited or bad information, what ends up driving parents’ choices and school administrators’ practices? Unfortunately, not always the kinds of things we would hope for. Parents focus on student demographics, class size, and safety — and, increasingly, school themes like “science and technology” — none of which say much about school performance.
Student test scores are gaining interest, but these omit critical information about school climate and college entry and completion. Also, just reporting the raw end-of-year results tells us nothing about what schools contribute to student learning, which is what school performance is all about. As I argue in my book on the topic, we need to fix this by accounting for the level of learning students start when they enter the school. Schools should not be punished for serving students who start off far behind. Instead, they should be rewarded when they help these students grow and develop.
More than just a market issue, administrators need good performance information to drive internal organizational improvement. If neither administrators nor parents have good performance information, are schools likely to improve their practices? Perhaps a little, in the long run, but this just reinforces the fact that markets in these circumstances do not operate at anything like full tilt. Perhaps this is one reason why the evidence points to mixed results for charter schools and vouchers.
While school choice programs expand, we stand waiting for the tools to make them work.
Greg Forster, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Put the parents back in charge
School choice is the best-proven way to improve public schools and private schools alike. Nationwide, almost 200,000 students are taking advantage of school vouchers and similar policies to attend private schools. Nine out of the ten empirical studies conducted using random assignment — the gold standard of social science — have found that school choice participants achieve better academic outcomes. Nineteen out of the twenty studies examining how choice impacts public schools (using a variety of methods) found that academic outcomes in public schools were improved as a result of the programs. In both cases, no studies have ever found a negative impact. The research also consistently shows school choice improves school safety and discipline, services to disabled students, the teaching of civic values, and racial integration; it also saves taxpayer money by removing inefficiencies like administrative bloat.
But the most important reasons to support school choice go far beyond these numbers. School choice improves education because it takes power away from the politicized bureaucracies that currently run the public school system, putting it back in the hands of parents and schools. There are lots of teachers in the public school system who want to do a better job of serving their students, but they’re limited by a system that’s designed to serve the bureaucrats, not the kids. By putting parents back in charge of education, school choice forces the political and bureaucratic system to get out of the way, empowering teachers who care about delivering a good education. Right now, education is a government monopoly; that’s why our schools are mediocre, and that’s why education is the only sector of American society where we still do things pretty much the same way we did them a hundred years ago. Only school choice can create space for educational innovators to invent the 21st century school.
Jane Hannaway, American Institutes for Research
A key tie is between accountability and consistency
School choice, in one form or another, has been part of education in the United States since the early days of the country. Publicly supported choice programs, however, are more recent and the form they take is continually evolving. Among other possibilities, they include charter schools, voucher programs, magnet schools, tuition tax credit programs, dual enrollment plans, and homeschooling.
From a public policy perspective the question is — with what effect? The arguments for and against choice programs are clear; but the consequences, especially from a public interest point of view, are less so. Are students who attend choice schools better off than similar students attending traditional schools? Do they learn more? Do the offerings or the school philosophy of choice schools better match the needs or objectives of their students? What are the societal and community consequences of choice schools that would merit public support? Are choice schools more efficient — presumably because they face market pressure? Does competition from choice schools spur traditional school to higher performance? On the downside, do choice schools foster economic or social segregation? Do they cream skim students, making them look more effective than they are, while simultaneously depriving traditional schools of the better students and, perhaps, the most quality-conscious parents. What information do parents use, and how well do they use it, when making choices about school alternatives?
Early research on choice schools, notably the work of James Coleman in the early 1980s, focused on comparing Catholic schools with public schools. More recently, research has focused on charter schools, no doubt because charter schools are increasingly promoted as a strategy for reforming sluggish public schools, especially in urban areas. Charter schools in the U.S., doubling to over 5000 in the last decade, now serve nearly 1.5 million students. In the District of Columbia nearly 40 percent of students attend a charter school, and over 60 percent in New Orleans. The federal government is promoting greater charter school development through its Race to the Top (RttT) initiative as a way to increase student achievement.
The research results on charter schools are mixed. Some charter schools outperform traditional public schools while others do not. The reasons for the differences are not entirely clear. Charter schools face two forms of accountability. They operate in a consumer choice system so presumably must be responsive to client preferences. However, there are good reasons to expect quality control through parental choice not to be particularly effective since there are costs to children changing schools which makes parents reluctant to do so. Charter schools also operate in a regulatory system — they receive their charter to operate from a public authority that can revoke the charter if they do not conform to the terms of the charter and perform up to par.
Revoking or not renewing charters and closing schools, however, has not been common. So, in general, external accountability has been weak, resulting in some schools doing well and others not. But things may be changing. New York City recently refused to renew a charter simply because its performance was mediocre, a pattern we might see emerging across the country. Under these conditions — where charter schools are really held to some performance standards — higher levels of charter school performance may more consistently emerge.
Clint Bolick, Goldwater Institute
Schools are not immune from the laws of economics
One of the disappointing features of modern political discourse is to propensity to question the motives of one’s opponents, rather than to engage their arguments. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fight over school choice, in which opponents seek to characterize proponents as part of a nefarious conspiracy to de-fund public schools. I suppose such a tactic is necessary because school choice opponents lack substantive arguments to support their position.
In 1999, Matthew Miller conducted an interesting experiment that he wrote about in The Atlantic. He asked proponents and opponents of school vouchers whether they would support a combination of school vouchers paired with large increases in public school funding. School choice proponents (myself included) by and large said yes, while school choice opponents largely said no. That suggests that some self-styled public school advocates would trade the increased public school funding they so cherish in order to preserve a status quo in which they have outsized influence.
One’s position on school choice depends on whether one views public schools as a means to an end or as an end in themselves. Those who take the first position support strong and effective public schools, but also favor alternatives when public schools fail. Those who take the opposite view support public schools — and greater funding for public schools — even when they fail in their core mission.
The fact is that for millions of schoolchildren, especially those who most desperately need a good education, the public schools are failing. One-size-fits-all rarely works for anything, and especially not for education. We have the technological capacity to deliver a high-quality, highly individualized educational experience for every child. But the current system is more focused on the interests of providers than the intended beneficiaries. We should provide the greatest possible array of educational options, from open public school enrollment to magnet schools to charter schools to vouchers to distance learning to education savings accounts where families can choose from a cafeteria-style menu of educational options tailored to their children’s unique needs. We should be far less concerned about where children are educated and more focused on whether children are learning.
Schools are not immune from the laws of economics. Competition and accountability strengthen institutions. Public schools that are fulfilling their mission will flourish with greater educational choices. True advocates of public education support education choice.
Sean Corcoran, NYU
The risks deserve more scrutiny
Sean P. Corcoran is an economist and associate professor of education economics at New York University. His research focuses on three areas: human capital in the teaching profession, education finance, and school choice.
School choice comes in many flavors, from vouchers, charters, and magnet schools to open choice, inter-district transfers, and cyber schools. These policies differ in form, but share the same goals. First, they break the link between residential location and school assignment. When families are dissatisfied with the quality, safety, or services offered in their local school, they are empowered to pursue other options. Second, choice facilitates better matches between students and schools. With a wide variety of options, families can choose the school with the theme, size, curriculum, or philosophy best matches their needs or interests. Third, choice aims to be the “tide that lifts all boats,” creating a marketplace in which good schools thrive and bad schools improve or close.
Economists (like me) tend to be cautiously optimistic about the potential for school choice to improve educational outcomes. With respect to most goods and services, the marketplace does a fine job of fueling innovation, rewarding quality, and getting consumers what they like, want, and need (the recent financial crisis notwithstanding). Policymakers and parents wish the same for their schools, and few would disagree that families deserve a voice in where their children go to school.
But economists also understand that markets do not guarantee good outcomes for all. On the contrary, market competition systematically produces winners and losers: thriving firms and dazzling failures, highly-paid CEOs and the working poor, satisfied customers and the fleeced. Though tides may rise in the long run, many boats sink along the way. For most goods and services, this is a risk we are willing to take. But in education — our single most important pathway to personal and social prosperity — the risks associated with unfettered choice deserve closer scrutiny.
For example, education reformers embrace the idea of providing families information for choosing schools, encouraging new schools to enter, and “letting the market work.” But choosing a school can be a serious and complex task. In New York City, for example, incoming freshmen choose from nearly 700 high school programs on 360 sites. New schools open every year while others close their doors, creating a constantly shifting landscape. Students are encouraged to seek out quality schools, but school “quality” is hard enough for professionals to measure, let alone kids. As in any market, families with the knowledge, energy, and resources necessary to identify good schools will fare well, while those who do not will fall behind.
On the supply side, the entry of new players into the market will likely promote innovation and increase average quality in the long run. As in any market, however, quality may vary greatly, with a few stand-out performers and many failures. The empirical evidence on charter school effectiveness has already shown such a pattern. With children’s education on the line, the downside risk of failure is incredibly high.
If education is to benefit from the virtues of markets, policymakers must be prepared for the likely negative effects of market competition. Inequality in educational outcomes may rise, not fall, under expanded school choice. As niche markets form and students seek out schools tailored to their needs and interests, segregation by ability, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and aspirations may rise. Given what we know about how markets work, these effects are predictable. We should begin now.
Final note from Learning Matters: If interested in learning more about the charter school experiment in New Orleans, we invite you to watch this trailer for an upcoming project of ours:
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