School Choice as Education Reform: What Do We Know? (page 2)
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.
Findings From the Research
School choice, in its various forms, has been the focus of numerous studies over the past two decades. Most studies find greater parental satisfaction associated with choice. But studies also clearly show that less educated parents with more modest means are less likely to exercise choice, which raises concerns that choice systems could lead to less equity and greater racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic stratification.
No definitive conclusions have emerged about the academic effects of school choice on students, in part because much of the evidence on choice is derived from non-experimental research designs where the participants in the study have self-selected a school, and therefore may differ from those not in the study. Even students in the study may differ from one another in ways that are unobservable to the researcher. For example, we cannot directly observe students' attitudes toward academics, though they clearly play a role in explaining their achievement.
Efficiency of Public and Private Schools
Numerous studies have examined differences in the outcomes of students who attend public and private schools, enabling speculation about the effects of a voucher policy on the K-12 education system. Private school students, in general, outperform their public school counterparts on standardized tests, and they are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. Significantly, positive private school effects have tended to be found predominantly for minority students in urban settings. There is, however, mixed evidence about whether this is an effect of the schools they attend or a result of student factors, such as family background.
Even if private schools do not outperform public schools in terms of test scores, they might still be considered more efficient if their costs for educating students are sufficiently lower. It is true that private school tuition, particularly for Catholic schools, is generally significantly less than the amount spent on each pupil in the public sector. There are, however, significant difficulties in accurately determining the cost of educating private school students. The tuition charged does not reflect subsidies from religious organizations or the in-kind contributions of parents who are often expected to contribute to the school's maintenance. The two sectors also serve very different student populations and provide different services. Thus, drawing strong conclusions about the value of choice based on comparisons between public and private schools is problematic.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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