Overton: School choice isn't effective


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School choice is an insidiously popular option for trying to reform the education system. People like to think they’re in control, especially parents. And what better way to gain votes than for lawmakers to help rescue innocent children from the seemingly diabolical clutches of American public schools? Indeed, according to a recent survey by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 54 percent of Iowans approve of a school-voucher system, and 50 percent of all respondents said they approve of charter schools.

A school-voucher program would let parents send their children to any public or private school. Any tax funding that goes to public schools from that child’s family would go to the chosen school in the form of a voucher to cover part or all of the tuition fee. Charter schools are public schools with more control over their operations and do not have to follow many of the regulations for other public schools.

School choice is tempting because it gives parents a feeling of greater control. But at the same time, it hurts “failing” schools and puts well-to-do schools in an even more privileged position with a greater pool of applicants. Private schools could more easily pick and choose who they want. Charter schools are often fairly popular and have to depend on a lottery system, so the unlucky kids who don’t get into either one then have to attend a public school whose funding is being drained because of competition with other schools. If we assume this is a successful model, we would be systematically leaving students behind through no fault of their own.

What kind of an education policy is that? People learn in different ways, speeds, and are from backgrounds that place varying levels of importance on academics. Public schools have to suck it up and do the best they can with what they have. Granted, this model is supposed to increase competition to improve education, but it does so by kicking the ones who are down while giving a leg up to those who have an advantage. It makes no sense and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t appear to work.

Schools in Milwaukee implemented a school-voucher program, and the results were unimpressive at best, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. “Our analysis finds little or no indication that pupils in those Milwaukee public schools that have more school-choice possibilities nearby made significantly greater year-to-year gains in primary school tests than pupils in other Milwaukee public schools,” it stated. “… Nor did we find evidence that students realize higher test-score gains in schools suffering greater recent-past losses in enrollment.”

The outcomes for charter schools are also nothing spectacular. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes found in a report released this year that 55 percent of charter schools have positive growth in reading scores, and 49 percent have positive growth in math scores. That sounds decent. But if these schools are as great as their proponents like to say, why do they only improve test scores about half the time? School choice is a nice idea. It sounds like common sense. If you apply free market principles to public education, schools will compete for supremacy, improving overall education. But that’s not what happens. School choice may mean more power, but it changes little.

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