Research & Commentary: Report Details How School Choice Opponents’ Doom-and-Gloom Prophesies Have Not Come True

Published May 3, 2022

EdChoice issued a report in November 2021 detailing how opponents of education choice consistently regurgitate the same extremely hostile, doom-laden talking points “without regard to the evidence [on the efficacy of school choice programs] or the size and scope of the proposals.”

In Who’s Afraid of School Choice? Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents, study authors Jason Bedrick and Ed Tarnowski assess the validity of these gloomy predictions. Specifically, they examine whether rhetoric by opponents of school choice differs in intensity depending on the size and scope of the program they are critiquing.

They conclude that “opponents of educational choice recycle the same false prophesies of doom without regard to the evidence or the scope of the proposals… Even after a few decades, the choice opponents’ predictions of disaster have not materialized. Instead, the average performance of district schools in the states with the most robust educational choice environments is as good or better than when the choice policies were enacted. Indeed, a mountain of evidence points to the choice policies having modest but statistically significant positive effects on district school performance… [Moreover], choice opponents’ pessimistic predictions do not vary in intensity based on the size or scope of the proposal.”

For example, the authors note that the five states with the largest school choice programs—Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have seen a per-pupil increase in real funding between 1.2 percent (in Arizona’s case) and 12.7 percent (in Ohio’s case) since 2002. This runs contrary to the rhetoric from school choice opponents that these programs would, according to an Indiana lawmaker cited in the study, “damage our public schools because [they are] going to siphon needed money away from our schools.”

Bedrick and Tarnowski also note that these same states have seen significant gains in scores on the Advanced Placement (AP) test and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams from 2000 to 2020, in many places outperforming the national average. Further, the authors find statistically significant and positive effects in 25 out of 28 empirical studies measuring the effect of choice programs upon academic performance among public school students. Of the remaining three, one study showed no effect, with the other two showing slight negative effects.

The authors’ findings related to school choice opponents’ heated rhetoric—which remained unchanged despite large size and scope differences within the proposed programs—is revealing and damning. For one example, choice opponent and education blogger Diane Ravitch lamented that a proposed West Virginia policy would hurtle the state “rapidly backward into the nineteenth century.” In response to a different piece of legislation under consideration in his home state of Kentucky, State Sen. Reginald Thomas asserted, “We once again see public education with its neck inside a guillotine, getting ready to have his head cut off.” In the former legislation—which has since been enacted—the program engendered a potential participation rate of up to 93 percent of K-12 students. In the latter, the maximum participation rate was to be capped at 0.6 percent of K-12 students. Despite vastly different scopes, oppositional diatribe reached the same level of apocalyptic fervor.

Legislators should not pay heed to this kind of rhetoric as copious empirical research on school choice programs clearly shows these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools. Additionally, they give families a wide range of options to meet their children’s unique needs, at a lower cost than traditional public schools.

Furthermore, education choice benefits public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. Research shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

These results—combined with teachers’ unions playing politics by closing schools during the COVID-19 pandemic—have likely been the reason education choice programs are more popular with parents than ever before. A poll conducted by EdChoice and released in September 2021 found 78 percent support for education savings accounts (ESAs) among the general public and 84 percent support among parents of current students. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s eighth-annual National School Choice Poll, released in March 2022, which found 77 percent support for ESA programs.

The goal of public education policy in the United States should be to allow parents to choose which schools their children attend, require schools to compete for each potential student, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and necessary than right now.

The following documents provide more information about education choice programs.

Who’s Afraid of School Choice? Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents
This EdChoice report details how opponents of educational choice recycle the same false prophesies of doom without regard to the evidence or the size and scope of the proposals.

Fiscal Effects of School Choice
This EdChoice analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C. summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States and finds they have provided up to $28.3 billion in net fiscal savings to state and local taxpayers through Fiscal Year 2018. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.

The 123s of School Choice (2020 Edition)
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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