A Report Card for School Choice

Published May 1, 2000

A growing body of research suggests that choice-based reforms often can yield positive results, with little evidence of making matters worse. Although results from school choice are more modest than many proponents originally predicted, it has been noted that an educational program that offers cost savings, is popular with users, and produces slightly improved test scores would normally be deemed a significant public policy success story.

On March 9-10, more than 40 education researchers met at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for a conference on “Charter Schools, Vouchers and Public Education” to assess the latest findings from the research on school choice.

The research presented there suggested that–after nine years of an experimental low-income voucher program in Milwaukee, four years of a similar program in Cleveland, and younger voucher programs in several other cities–an increasing number of social scientists are finding school choice yields some positive effects with little or no negative fallout.

For philosophical reasons, many opponents of school choice will continue to resist voucher programs. Nonetheless, an increasing number of researchers, regardless of their initial positions on the notion of school choice, are starting to agree on the following five points.

Choice Helps Poor, Minority Families

Despite fears that increased school choice segregates schools, the voucher programs currently in place serve primarily low-income, minority parents. Reports from Milwaukee, Cleveland, Dayton, and Washington DC show that parents who take advantage of vouchers are not much different from their neighbors: overwhelmingly minority and poor. As currently constructed, in Florida and elsewhere, voucher programs help African-American and Hispanic children escape from bad schools; they do not help the middle-class pay private school tuition.

Of course, if vouchers were expanded to include the middle-class, things could change. But initial research suggests that students of different races interact as much or more in private than in public schools, largely because private schools have stronger common course requirements and rarely track students by academic performance.

Parents Like Choice

Parents and students taking part in voucher programs are glad to be in private schools. Most are more satisfied than with their previous public schools. Similarly, other research shows that teachers feel greater empowerment and career satisfaction in private and charter schools than in district schools, which are often seen as too bureaucratic.

Better Preparation for Democracy

Despite fears that religious schooling might divide Americans along sectarian lines, survey research analyzed by Harvard University’s David Campbell, Georgetown University’s Patrick Wolfe, and their collaborators finds that private schools do a better job than public schools of preparing students for democracy.

Some research suggests this effect is particularly evident in Catholic schools, which stress social equity and community service. There is also evidence that Catholic schools do better than public schools at fostering tolerance for those of different races and opinions.

Accordingly, parents concerned about increased social divisions–as were all too apparent at Columbine High School–might prefer to send their children to Catholic schools rather than to district schools.

Existing Programs Do No Harm

School choice does not appear to harm existing public schools. When voucher programs are designed to be small-scale and have only a modest financial impact on the districts, public schools take little notice of them. It is only when choice programs expand, or begin to have significant financial or personnel impacts–as has occurred in certain charter school programs–that district schools often try to win back the parents and children. This competitive process does not seem to harm public schools; rather, it encourages bureaucrats in the central district offices to empower their more innovative teachers and principals, creating new and sometimes promising programs in the public schools.

Similar or Better Test Score Gains

Finally, the vast majority of voucher program evaluations show that students using vouchers to attend private schools achieve test score gains equal to or a bit better than comparable students who stayed in public schools. Thus far, researchers have been able to study only the short-run test score effects of vouchers in well-designed experiments, so we do not yet know whether long-term gains will be more or less significant. Also, it is important to note we do not yet have systematic test score evidence on charter school performance, largely because most charter schools have been launched only within the last two to three years.

Summarizing studies conducted by both supporters and skeptics of school choice, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute reports most evaluators find school choice has some significant benefits. With the single exception of math scores for grades 6-8 in the Washington DC program, none of the studies finds that choice harms students.

While the results of this summary should be treated as still quite tentative, we should nonetheless heed Greene’s conclusion that this “is about as close as one gets to a positive consensus among researchers examining a controversial policy.”

Voucher students seem to do a bit better academically even though vouchers represent only about half of what is spent on the typical urban public school student. The question of cost is actually more complex than it at first appears, as private and public schools are not charged with providing the same services, but the fact remains that voucher schools are faring at least as well as public schools while spending substantially less per pupil.

A Significant Public Policy Success?

Voucher programs have not generated the smashing academic success many proponents originally promised. However, as Harvard University’s Caroline Hoxby points out, an educational program that is popular with students and parents, yields slightly improved test scores, and costs half as much is usually deemed a significant public policy success.

Frederick M. Hess is assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia; Robert Maranto is visiting professor of government at the University of Virginia; and Scott Milliman is associate professor of economics at James Madison University.