COMMENTARY: What Research Says About School Choice
Posted on Wednesday February 22, 2012 | National
From Education Week:
Last year we saw an unprecedented wave of new school choice programs launch across the country. These hard-won political victories for the choice movement also consolidated important improvements in program design. Following 20 years of heated debate, new programs reflect a growing sophistication regarding the design and implementation of school choice policies.
It is time for claims and counterclaims about school choice to show similar maturation. There are limits to how much we can learn by studying existing programs, and to what extent we can apply these findings to other contexts. However, we have learned much in the two decades since the start of the Milwaukee voucher program in 1990 and the passage, in Minnesota, of the nation's first charter school law in 1991.
We are scholars and analysts who support school choice in some fashion, though we have varied perspectives regarding the optimal nature, extent, and design of choice-based arrangements. Choice's track record so far is promising and provides support for continuing expansion of school choice policies.
School choice policies enable parents to decide where their children will be educated. School vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts give parents the authority to redirect the education funding that supports sending their child to the school of their choice, public or private. Charter schools are public schools of choice that are free from some of the typical constraints under which district schools operate.
In empirical studies of these programs, the primary question examined so far has been their impact on the academic outcomes of participating students. Studies in Milwaukee; New York City; Dayton, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; and Washington, D.C., have used high-quality methods, including random assignment, to examine this question with high confidence.
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. Usually the improvements are spread across the whole participating population; sometimes they are identified in particular demographic groups making up the majority of participants. All of these studies have been conducted in low-income, heavily minority urban populations. Attrition issues, such as student mobility, limit the time length of random-assignment studies, so long-term impacts are largely unexplored so far.
Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive.