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What the Research Says about School Choice

March 6, 2012 by Jay P. Greene

When reporters describe the research on school choice, they often say that it is "mixed and inconclusive."  Even though it is completely inaccurate, reporters have a variety of reasons to assert that school choice research fails to support the creation and expansion of choice programs.  Research is complicated and skill and judgment are required to interpret it correctly.  Reporters often lack that skill or are afraid to exercise judgment, so they are inclined to say that research on controversial issues, like school choice, is just indeterminate.  Avoiding the wrath of rabid choice opponents makes agnosticism on choice research even more attractive.  And there is enough disagreement among researchers over the details of choice research to give reporters cover in saying that even the experts don't agree. As it turns out, there is significantly more agreement among researchers and analysts about the evidence on school choice than reporters let on.  While researchers have incentives to quibble and argue, it is useful to step back and see what they agree upon. Last week a group of nine researchers and analysts, including myself, published a piece in Education Week that attempted to summarize the major points of agreement about the evidence on school choice.  I would encourage you to read the article in full as well as examine the links to supporting evidence, but here is my summary of the main points: 1) Choice should be expanded: "We do not offer false certainty about a future none of us knows. But the early evidence is promising, and the grounds for concern have been shown to be largely baseless. The case for expanding our ongoing national experiment with school choice is strong." 2) Students benefit academically from receiving vouchers: "Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact.  None of these studies has found a negative impact." 3) The evidence on charters is also positive, but the benefits are more limited: "Among charter schools, some high-quality studies show that charters have positive effects on academic outcomes. In other contexts, the findings are more mixed. In general, charters seem most likely to have positive effects on student achievement at the elementary level, in math, if the school is part of a well-established charter network such as the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) if the student has been enrolled for a while, if the student is disadvantaged, and if the school is in an urban area." 4) Competitive pressure from choice improves the quality of traditional public schools: "Among voucher programs, these studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools. The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large. No study has found a negative impact. Fewer studies have examined the competitive effects of charter schools on achievement in traditional public schools, and the studies that do exist vary greatly in quality. The more rigorous studies generally show that charter competition is associated with modest increases in achievement in nearby public schools. 5) Choice saves taxpayers money: "Even under conservative assumptions about such questions as state and local budget sensitivity to enrollment changes, the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative." 6) The study of existing choice programs does not tell us what better-design future choice programs could do: "The most important limitation on all of this evidence is that it only studies the programs we now have; it does not study the programs that we could have some day. Existing school choice programs are severely limited, providing educational options only to a targeted population of students, and those available options are highly constrained. These limitations need to be taken seriously if policymakers wish to consider how these studies might inform their deliberations. The impact of current school choice programs does not exhaust the potential of school choice. On the other hand, the goal of school choice should be not simply to move students from existing public schools into existing private schools, but to facilitate the emergence of new school entrants; i.e., entrepreneurs creating more effective solutions to educational challenges. This requires better-designed choice policies and the alignment of many other factors—such as human capital, private funding, and consumer-information sources—that extend beyond public policy. Public policy by itself will not fulfill the full potential of school choice." In writing this piece, we did not expect to end debate over the evidence on school choice.  And we acknowledge that we are researchers and analysts "who support school choice in some fashion."  But our inclinations do not alter the evidence.  Reporters and policymakers cannot simply dismiss research on school choice without directly addressing the evidence, which we believe clearly supports school choice. This post was written by Jay P. Greene, an Education Reform Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  Find him on Twitter: @jaypgreene 


Author

Jay P. Greene
Jay P. Greene

As a fellow, Mr. Greene launched the Bush Institute’s Global Report Card and updates it annually. He holds the 21st Century Chair in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Mr. Greene earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and a doctorate from Harvard University.
 

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