Point of View: School Choice Evidence

Published September 1, 2004

Parents are seizing new opportunities to choose their children’s schools through vouchers and charter schools. But does such school choice improve learning and lead to other improvements in schooling? The evidence from a variety of studies shows it does.

Analyses of student achievement indicate school choice leads to higher levels of learning in various parts of the United States and other countries. Better studies show stronger and more consistent effects, and no study points to substantially poorer performance of choice schools.

Surveys show parents most often choose private and public charter schools with academic standards superior to regular public schools. Parents are as adept as education experts in evaluating the academic offerings. To meet parents’ desires for such offerings, charter schools are expanding their numbers and enrollments.

Required new achievement reporting in all 50 states helps parents pinpoint failing schools and choose the best school for their children. Unlike regular schools, moreover, schools of choice that fail to attract parents must close, which leaves the successful schools of choice to prosper and further enlarge opportunities.

In geographic areas with larger numbers of schools of choice, regular public schools achieve more, have higher graduation rates, and cost less than regular schools in other similar areas with little choice. The positive effects of competition are also notable in metropolitan and urban areas containing multiple school districts that consistently outperform areas with a single monopolistic school district, such as Los Angeles and New York City. The poor performance of public schools, particularly in such large districts, is attributable to unwieldy and wasteful central bureaucracies that are inherently less sensitive to parent concerns and preferences.

School choice is also effective among special-needs students with physical and mental problems such as those in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program. More than 90 percent of parents of McKay children report being satisfied with their choice schools, far more than other parents of other special-needs students in nonchosen schools. Depending on their own preferences, McKay parents can choose between schools that focus on a particular disability or schools that integrate children with and without disabilities. Parent surveys also show McKay students suffer far less harassment and physical attacks than their peers attending nonchosen public schools.

Massively increased choice and resulting competition improve schooling correspondingly. In contrast to the relatively small scale of present U.S. choice programs, Sweden, perhaps surprisingly, provides an excellent example. In 1993, the Swedish government required that all school districts fund schools of choice at a per-student rate of 85 percent of the per-student cost of regular public schools. Tuition charges were eliminated, new educational standards established, and an open admission policy accepted students of varying ability, ethnicity, and socioeconomic level. Sweden’s nationwide choice program was a rousing success in terms of achievement and parental satisfaction.

Parents have the incentives and information to choose schools for their children just as they choose their names, food, and physicians. There seem to be no good reasons why parents cannot and should not choose their children’s schools.

Herbert J. Walberg, chairman of The Heartland Institute, is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; a member of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education; and University Scholar and research professor emeritus of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This material was first published as a Hoover Institute Weekly Essay on July 21, 2004: http://www-hoover.stanford.edu/pubaffairs/we/2004/walberg07.html.

© 2004 The Trustees of Leland Stanford