I attended an event this week on Race, Poverty, and School Reform, and I was surprised to hear almost every panelist discuss choice as the best way to reform schools. Research doesn’t support their claims, however. While choice is great and helps parents find programs and schools that best fit their children’s needs, it is not the panacea to all challenges in education. Choice doesn’t always have to be outside of the traditional public school system, either. Finally, choice is not reform in that parental choice of school doesn’t always result in better outcomes for their students.
- About 87 percent of America’s school-age children are in public schools, including the five percent in charter schools. We’ve spent decades creating systems to serve students, and those aren’t likely to go away soon. So, if we want to improve outcomes for students today, we have to work within that system.
- Traditional school districts offer many students choices. Thirty-seven percent of all parents reported having choices within their local public schools in 2012. This includes magnet schools, charters (both district-run and others), and districts offering flexible attendance zones or transfers. Many districts offer specialized schools and programs such as dual-language immersion, STEM, or the arts.
- Charter schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional public schools. CREDO found that only about a quarter of charter schools outperform their local counterparts, while in reading, 19 percent of charters perform worse than their local traditional school, and 31 percent perform worse in math. Granted, charters in urban settings and those that serve students in poverty do tend to outperform their local counterparts, but part of this is due to poorly performing traditional public schools in these regions. Even with this growth, most poor and urban students in charters are not catching up with their more advantaged peers. And, while the overall average is positive, traditional schools outperformed charters in about one-third of the cities studied. So, while charters may be a good option for some, they are not across-the-board saviors for student achievement.
- School choice in any form (school districts, charter, and vouchers) can make segregation worse, which has negative impacts on students’ achievement and life outcomes. While there are some charters that are intentionally diverse, only four states (Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina) have state laws that require charter schools to reflect the makeup of their local traditional public schools to some degree. Very few public school districts utilize controlled choice models that aim to balance parental choice with diverse school populations. Research also shows that parents tend to choose schools schools based on school location and demographics that match their own .
- Private schools aren’t necessarily better than traditional schools, either. Results are hard to measure, as most programs don’t require private schools to participate in state tests. High school graduation rates are generally higher, but that may also be due to admissions-based cream-skimming and/or relaxed graduation requirements (this is just speculation, echoed from other researchers). While some programs have shown positive results (New York, DC), others have harmed student achievement. Students in the Louisiana voucher program dropped significantly in achievement, dropping 16 percentile points in math and eight in reading. Some studies have shown that private schools perform worse than public schools if demographic factors are accounted for.
Impact of Louisiana Voucher Program on Student Achievement after 2 years
- School choice in the form of public school vouchers doesn’t always serve every student. Very few voucher programs require private school providers to adhere to IDEA laws for special education students (outside of programs that cater specifically to special education students), and no states require participating schools to address the needs of English language learners. Voucher laws allow private schools to adhere to their admission criteria, which encourages more schools to participate. However, these criteria often discriminate against students based on their religion and sexual orientation (only Maine and Vermont prohibit religious schools from participating). Some private schools may also have extra fees for sports or other programs, which may exclude low-income families from participating in the program. Few voucher programs provide transportation, which may also be limiting.
- Full-time virtual schools, which serve about 180,000 students nationwide, have been shown to grossly underperform other forms of schools. Only two percent of virtual schools outperformed their traditional public school counterpart in reading, and zero percent had better results in math. CREDO estimates that attending a virtual school is the equivalent of not attending school at all for a year in math, and of losing 72 days of instruction in reading.
School choice can be great for some families and some students. However, the reality is that just because parents choose schools doesn’t mean that that school will do better for student achievement overall. While some education reformers are pushing for increased school choice as a way to improve education, the research just doesn’t support this notion, at least not in the current framework. What we should be doing is learning from high-performing schools in every sector (traditional, charter, and private) to replicate effective administrative and instructional practices. While competition itself may someday push schools to improve, that doesn’t help today’s students, and there’s no guarantee that competition makes schools better, anyway. Today’s students deserve true reform based on evidence, not ideology, so that they receive the best education possible.