Making Sense of School Choice Research

As the national spotlight shines brighter on private school choice, it’s a good time to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not with regard to voucher programs.

This is why I was grateful for Arianna Prothero’s recent piece in Ed Week that highlighted some recent private school choice research.

Arianna is correct in pointing out that recent studies from Ohio, D.C., and Louisiana show that students who switch from public schools to private schools might not perform as well on state exams in their first few years of the transition. This makes sense given that curriculums are different.

What’s interesting is that the research also shows that students in private school choice programs tend to get caught up academically within a few years. Given this, I think the most important question is how we can help close those gaps faster. And what can private schools do to mitigate this enrollment lag?

One other point worth mentioning is that both the Louisiana and Ohio studies used student performance on state assessments as the measure of academic progress, which is problematic because students in private school choice programs are not necessarily learning the same standards as those in traditional public schools, and state exams are aligned to the standards used in public schools.

Furthermore, a full discussion of private school choice should include not only these recent studies but also the 17 experimental studies that have been done on this topic over the past sixteen years, 11 of which find that students in private schools learn more than their peers in traditional public schools.

This is not to say that private school choice is working perfectly, but it is providing better academic opportunities for nearly half a million kids across the country.

Private school choice is not a perfect solution – it’s just one of many tools that states can and should use to help provide a great education to all students. Now is the time for us, as a country, to figure out how to make private choice programs as strong as possible for our students.

To find out what’s working, we can start by looking at states like Florida and Arizona who have steadily built strong private choice programs alongside continually improving charter and traditional public schools.