The Real Problem with School Choice–There’s Not Enough

Published July 12, 2011

In the past year, 14 significant school choice programs from Colorado to Indiana to Georgia have begun or expanded. A common criticism of options such as vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, and education savings accounts is that they weaken local public schools financially, through enrollment drops and losses in public support. Here are three reasons that criticism is incorrect and in fact choice strengthens public schools.

1. Most public schools aren’t amazing. The latest poll from Gallup shows 77 percent of Americans think their child’s public school deserves an A or B. Forty-nine percent of the same respondents said this about their local schools as a whole, and only 18 percent thought so of the nation’s schools.

Combine this with flat test scores across the country for the past 50 years and wide variability in school quality even in the same districts, and it’s clear a good many people think their local school is much better than it is. Although a select few public schools do operate like the Navy SEALS– efficient, team-centered, accomplished, and admirable–vastly more operate like the DMV, or worse. In a country where people have a choice of 27 different varieties of ketchup, it’s silly to lock kids into one immutable system, especially for a much more important pursuit.

2. Expanding choice improves public schools. As education scholar Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas notes, many school choice programs have been so limited, usually by design, they can hardly be expected to have much effect on the local school system. Public schools have little reason to innovate or attempt to attract students because their funding and enrollment are basically assured. So the central problem with school choice is not that it doesn’t work, but that it’s been deliberately handicapped.

Despite this formidable barrier, the best studies have found even limited school choice programs not only improve education for choice students but also for nearby public school students. Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice reviewed 19 studies addressing this subject and found all but one revealed significant academic improvement for students in traditional public schools in response to choice competition. That’s all the more reason to increase school choice and set schools free to compete.

3. Choice gets better results for less money. No “gold standard,” random-assignment study of vouchers or charter schools has ever shown negative effects for students. Instead, they demonstrate better math and reading scores, higher graduation rates, more student and parent satisfaction with the school, and the like. In addition, private and charter schools tend to get their better results at much less cost to taxpayers than do public schools.

In Milwaukee, for example, public schools spend about $16,500 in taxpayer dollars per child. The voucher program there, and its new expansion for this fall, will spend up to $6,400 per child. Indiana spends almost $10,000 to educate each public-schooled child, and its new voucher program dedicates up to $4,500 per participating student. Such savings are repeated in other voucher programs.

Instead of worrying whether education choice hurts public schools, we should consider whether public schools, as currently organized, offer the best options for children. The evidence says no, and that’s why states around the country are finding better ways.

The goal of public education funds is to offer each child and family in a community an education that fits them, not to prop up specific school systems and adult bureaucracies. Instead of letting public money lose its way in the hallways of bureaucracy and illiteracy by insisting on the current, dysfunctional system, the past year of broadening school choice should be just the beginning.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.