Is Choice the Answer?

Published December 1, 1998

Until the University of Chicago’s James Coleman published his study on the superior performance of Catholic schools, the general impression was that Catholic schools were not as good academically as public schools, according to Harvard University Professor of Government Paul E. Peterson, speaking in San Francisco on “The Impact of Educational Choice.” When he was a public school student himself, he recalled, he and his classmates felt a little sorry for children who attended parochial schools.

Although Coleman’s work was attacked bitterly by the education establishment, his findings were confirmed last year by Derek Neal at the University of Chicago, who showed that attending a Catholic school increased a minority students’ chances of graduating from college from 11 percent to 27 percent. Since the publication of Neal’s work, more evidence has accumulated that the public schools have a serious problem. The question posed by Peterson was: Is choice the answer?

Drawing on a growing body of research from school choice experiments in central city school systems in Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, DC, Peterson addressed the following issues:

Who participates in choice?
Participants in the New York City choice program are neither the “rich” nor the “cream,” but children from working poor families or with mothers on welfare. Incoming choice students perform well below the public school average on Iowa Tests.

Why choose?
The top two reasons given by Cleveland parents for choosing a nonpublic school in that city’s voucher program were improved academic quality and greater safety at the choice school.

Are parents satisfied?
Private school parents generally are much more satisfied with their schools than are public school parents. However, applicants in general are not particularly upset with public schools but seem to feel the same way about public schools as parents in a national survey–their own child’s school is fine, but public education generally is poor.

Will choice balkanize schools?
Although critics claim that school choice will lead to increasing segregation and separatism in schools, two studies by Jay Greene of the University of Texas at Austin show that there is less segregation in private schools than in public schools.

Are the bad kids kicked out?
Despite the contention that private schools achieve their superior results by kicking out or not admitting problem students, studies of scholarship programs in Cleveland and Washington, DC, provide no evidence to support this view. Very few children have been expelled or asked to leave.

Are students learning more?
Students are learning more in the Cleveland Hope schools, but this is not a randomized experiment. Results from the randomized experiment in Milwaukee show large gains in the third and fourth years, but not much in the first two. In all cases, there was an immediate large increase in parental satisfaction with the choice schools.