School choice debate vs. reality, Jay Mathews, Washington Post, 5/31/11

posted Jan 29, 2012, 4:14 AM by Bill Duncan
Posted at 07:07 PM ET, 05/31/2011

School choice debate vs. reality

In the raging debate over school choice--perhaps the only educational issue that gets heated enough to interest politicians--the combatants, including me, tend to go with our own conclusions rather than the research. Timothy Hacsi in his 2002 book “Children As Pawns” showed this is the way we usually argue about schools in America.

But research is still being done. It is refreshing to find a new book presenting some of the most recent findings, as disturbing as they might be to my favorite biases. “School Choice and School Improvement,” edited by Mark Berends, Marisa Cannata and Ellen B. Goldring, is the latest offering of Vanderbilt University’s National Center on School Choice.

Here are what the data say. Feel free to ignore if it conflicts with your arguments. I certainly will:

1. Vouchers work in D.C..Overall, 82 percent of students offered tax-funded vouchers to attend private schools graduated from high school, compared to 70 percent of a control group with the same characteristics who didn’t use vouchers. Low-income students in D.C. who got a voucher also performed better in reading. This will discomfort people like me, who think vouchers are a dead end in school reform.

2. Parents say they switch to charters for better academic results, but don’t appear to mean it. Families in Indianapolis indicate on surveys that academics drive their decisions to go to charters. Indeed, 65 percent of parents and students surveyed left regular public schools that did not meet the federal test score targets the year before. Unfortunately, only a third of them chose charters that DID meet those targets. We charter advocates have to wonder if our faith in parental decision-making is justified.

3. Regular school principals in a position to be influenced by competition from charters don’t appear to be doing anything differently. They perceive little influence from charters on their financial resources or ability to recruit teachers and students. I have always doubted the notion that charters, at least in their current state of development, would have much effect on regular schools, but I thought there would be at least some signs of changing strategies. This study says no.

4. In Michigan, competition from charters does not lead to more regular school efforts to raise achievement. The results are similar to what was recorded in the principals’ study, but more depressing. I thought regular schools might be doing something to take their students to a higher level. Of course most charters aren’t raising achievement much either.

5. Charters are not skimming the best students from regular schools and not creating greater racial stratification. Finally, some good news for the charter movement. “Students transferring to charter schools had prior achievement levels that were generally similar to or lower than those of their TPS [traditional public school] peers,” concluded a study of two states and five large urban school districts. “Typically, students transferring to charter schools moved to schools with similar racial distributions as the TPSs from which the students came.”

There is much in these 311 pages, published by Harvard University Press. Read the book and start an argument. I will try to do the same, and make some effort at least temporarily to stick with the many facts contained within.

By   |  07:07 PM ET, 05/31/2011