The School Choice Solution

Published July 16, 2007

In June 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that most states have set testing standards well below those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” This is unsurprising since the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requires states to set testing standards, but allows them to make their own judgment about how high to set them. Contrary to congressional plans, NCLB isn’t holding schools accountable for failure.

Congress is now debating the reauthorization of NCLB. In the process, it should make accountability more than a slogan. The best way to do this is by requiring states to provide parents with real choices–particularly to those parents with children in repeatedly failing schools. Evidence shows schools perform better and children learn more when parents have choices in two ways.

One way is to provide vouchers, also called scholarships to families who could not otherwise afford a private schooling of their children, particularly poor and minority families. These vouchers can be privately or publicly funded and used at traditional parochial and independent schools, which currently enroll over 5 million students nationwide. Vouchers were ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, and already enable the parents of some 36,500 youngsters across the nation to attend private schools in such places as Cleveland, Milwaukee, the District of Columbia, and the entire state of Florida.

The other way is charter schools. In the 2006-07 school year, about 1.1 million students were attending 3,977 charter schools. These schools are operated by private boards and paid for with public dollars, but authorized and regulated by states, school districts, universities and other officially designated organizations. Unfortunately, the number of charter schools allowed is far too limited to meet parents’ desires, and nearly half the charter schools are in four states–Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. The existing charter schools are over-regulated and do not receive funding commensurate with public schools.

Despite the current limitations on educational choices, evidence is mounting that the impact of choice is consistently positive. Well-designed studies by Caroline Hoxby at Harvard University and others show that students in charter schools gain significantly more in reading and mathematics achievement. Charter schools that have gained experience of operating a few years gain more than the many new ones that are just starting.

Parents who choose their children’s schools are more satisfied than parents whose children go to the neighborhoods schools assigned to them by their districts. Choice also creates what can be inferred as competitive effects: Studies have shown that traditional public schools do better when they are located in areas with a high concentration of private schools, charter schools, and voucher programs.

Detractors often lament that school choice will lead to a segregated society. But opinion surveys show students in schools of choice are more tolerant than those in traditional public schools. Schools of choice also draw children from across greater distances than do traditional neighborhood schools. Their students represent the broad social composition of entire communities. Traditional neighborhood public schools usually reflect only the social composition of people within several blocks of the school.

Surveys also show that parents and the public are increasingly supportive of school choice, particularly as they better understand how vouchers and charter schools work. A clear majority of parents, particularly poor and minority parents in big cities, say they would send their children to private schools if they could afford it.

Americans usually regard themselves as free to choose–perhaps as having the freest country in the world. But compared to citizens of other industrialized nations, most Americans have little choice about where to educate their children. Accountability cannot exist absent of parental choice. Other countries have made this realization. Tragically, we still have not.

Herb Walberg ([email protected]) is a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and author of School Choice: The Findings (Cato Institute, August 2007).