School Choice by the Numbers

Published May 1, 2007

Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy
edited by Julian Betts and Tom Loveless
Brookings Institution Press, December 2005
255 pages, $19.95 paper, ISBN 0-8157-5331-4

It may be a cliché in book reviews to call a book “an important contribution,” but Getting Choice Right certainly is one. Editors Julian Betts and Tom Loveless have compiled a set of essays that present, as much as possible, the empirical reality of school choice, and suggest practical policies for developing a market in education.

The book includes a chapter on the economic argument for school choice, but most of the volume examines data about how choice has actually worked.

Though not an easy read–the chapters include discussions of studies and academic articles–it’s worth the effort. Despite its academic nature, the book keeps the social science jargon to a minimum, allowing laypeople to benefit.

Betts’ essay examines how education theoretically works as a market, albeit an imperfect one, having numerous suppliers offering generally similar products. Betts argues even imperfect competition yields broad benefits, and better benefits could be had if policymakers would encourage greater competition.

Empirical Data

In another essay, Frederick Hess and Loveless examine the scholarly literature and available data about the performance of students in choice programs. The data, they argue, show some improvements, but it is not always consistent.

School choice, they observe, is more like a new arrangement of hospitals than a new medication.

One of the arguments made against school choice is the concern that students who don’t use it will be left behind. Several essays in the book consider that question, recognizing that some choice arrangements could harm existing schools and that others will not respond to competition. The essays offer policy recommendations to prevent that from happening where school choice is available.

Racial Neutrality Two chapters discuss the impact of school choice on racial integration. Brian Gill (RAND) briefly touches on the empirical evidence collected so far, which he says is little, then proposes how data might best be collected and analyzed to understand the impact of choice on integration.

Karen Ross (University of Michigan) offers a lengthy, data-filled chapter on the racial impact of charter schools in Michigan, finding they have essentially the same racial mixture as in neighboring public schools. Choice, she observes, has not increased “white flight” from existing public schools.

Political Values

The final two chapters consider the relationship between political values and school choice. Patrick Wolfe (Georgetown University) considers the impact school choice has on students’ civic values. Wolfe argues the modest evidence to date suggests students in private schools have at least as much and sometimes more racial tolerance, political knowledge, social capital, and voluntarism as public school students.

The thoughtful essays in this book are helpful for those considering school choice, and the many references to other studies are a virtue. Although this is not the final word on school choice, it’s arguably the most-informed single volume on the subject.

The book is the second volume by the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education, a project of the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.