School Choice as Education Reform: What Do We Know?
School choice exists today in a variety of forms, from charter schools, magnet schools, and district and state open enrollment plans to publicly and privately financed voucher plans. Despite years of research and debate, the question of whether school choice improves student outcomes persists. Choice proponents suggest that injecting greater competition into the education system can revolutionize education, while opponents argue that choice would help only a select few students and hurt the many who are left behind. These starkly different views belie a much murkier research picture that suggests some forms of school choice may benefit some students under certain conditions. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the choice issue also ignores the crucial role that the specifics of school choice policies likely play in determining their effects. This digest explores the issues surrounding school choice and highlights some of the major research findings.
How Choice Might Improve K-12 Education
There are two arguments about why greater school choice would result in better educational outcomes: (1) It could allow schools to better tailor their programs to attract students with particular interests or learning styles, thus providing a better match for students' unique educational needs; and (2) it would break the public school educational monopoly and force schools to compete for students in an educational marketplace in which "good" schools would prosper and "bad" schools would improve or be forced to shut down.
If the primary benefit of choice is the match between students and schools, greater choice would be beneficial regardless of whether a school's resources are directly connected to its student population. However, if the primary benefit of choice is the creation of incentives designed to squeeze inefficiencies out of the system, then the connection between student shifts and educational resources may be essential so that there are financial consequences associated with losing students; here competition from the private sector may be beneficial.
Although the theory behind the potential benefits of choice is relatively straightforward, the educational marketplace is not directly parallel to the private sector. Students and parents may choose schools for a variety of reasons, and the vast majority of schools are not for profit. As a result, the ultimate impact of choice depends on how parents and schools respond to more schooling options and greater competition.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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