RAND Study Grudgingly Reveals Good News about School Choice

Published February 1, 2002

A RAND study primarily funded by foundations that have been skeptical of–if not downright hostile toward–school choice reported many positive and promising results of private school vouchers and public charter schools.

But the RAND authors took such pains to spin the data as tilting toward neither supporters nor foes of choice that the 266-page report generated a spate of anti-choice headlines.

“Our review of the evidence leaves us without a crisp, bottom-line judgment of the wisdom of voucher and charter programs,” contended the RAND authors.

“Voucher Study Indicates No Steady Gains in Learning,” decided The New York Times in a December 9 story. Reporter Diana Jean Schemo interpreted the report to reveal “the paucity of reliable data from either side.”

Consistent Progress

But RAND’s analysis, entitled Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools, in fact shows a consistent pattern of progress.

Consider these findings in the RAND report:

  • Parental satisfaction levels “are high in virtually all voucher and charter programs studied, indicating that parents are happy with the school choices made available by the programs.” In economics, customer satisfaction is a key component of quality. In education, practically everyone agrees parental engagement is vital to raising school quality.
  • Early data for small-scale, experimental, privately funded voucher initiatives targeted to low-income families show “modest” achievement benefits for African-American children after just one or two years when compared with pupil achievement in local public schools.
  • While achievement results from the nation’s 2,400 public charter schools are “mixed,” they suggest “charter-school performance improves after the first year of operation.” Considering charter schools frequently draw students who have had difficulties in regular government-run schools, that finding is of no small significance.
  • School choice programs expressly designed with family-income qualifications “have succeeded in placing low-income, low-achieving, and minority students in voucher schools.”
  • In segregated communities where racial isolation in public schools is high, “targeted voucher programs may modestly increase racial integration” because they put voucher children in schools that are “less uniformly minority,” without reducing whatever degree of integration exists in the public schools they left.
  • Most charter schools have racial/ethnic distributions similar to those of regular public schools. However, noted RAND, in some states there are charter schools that serve less integrated, more racially homogeneous populations. The researchers did not explain that in some states–North Carolina, for example–the phenomenon of less-integrated charter schools has occurred because African-American parents have taken their children out of failing public schools en masse, enrolling them in better-performing charter schools where that option is available.

“This study confirms what choice parents already know: School choice works,” said Clint Bolick, vice president of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Justice, which will represent voucher parents in the landmark Cleveland case when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments February 20.

“All the evidence so far suggests that choice is a life-saver for low-income and minority children who otherwise lack educational opportunities. There is no evidence that it harms students in traditional public schools.”

Fear of the Unknown

RAND team researchers Brian Gill, Michael Timpane, Karen Ross, and Dominic Brewer contended the “unknowns” about choice far exceed the “knowns.” One of the unknowns of most concern to them was the effect of choice on the “non-choosers”–those students “left behind” in public schools after other children have left for voucher or charter schools.

Yet, after a tedious examination of evidence seeking to debunk research showing a salutary effect on student achievement of Florida’s vouchers, the RAND researchers “conclude that Florida’s A+ Accountability system induced modest short-run improvements in the scores of low-performing schools in writing and probably in math as well.”

That is, the Florida voucher program improved the scores of non-choosers, enrolled in schools that improved in large measure because of the mere threat of state-issued vouchers.

Further Research Recommended

In the final analysis, RAND’s questioning of the sufficiency of evidence could be a boon to the choice movement.

The study ended by throwing RAND’s weight behind further, extensive experimentation with well-funded and well-designed voucher and charter programs. That would ensure stable growth for the movement . . . because once parents have school choice, they don’t want to give it up.

Launching new and larger-scale experiments with school choice would be clearly contrary to the wishes of choice foes like Jack Jennings of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Jennings told The New York Times the RAND report meant “let’s get on to real school reform, to things that we know for sure help children achieve better: all-day kindergarten for low-income children, better teachers for schools in poverty, and smaller classes.” The research about such initiatives is, of course, decidedly mixed.

The RAND study was funded by the Gund Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

The RAND report by Brian Gill, Michael Timpane, Karen Ross, and Dominic Brewer, Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools, is available on RAND’s Web site at www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1118.