Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Case Against School Choice

I wrote a few days ago about John McCain's education plan, which puts emphasis on allowing "school choice for all who want it." I wrote at the time, that the plan simply doesn't work, but I want to get a little more into that today. On the surface, school choice - especially for kids in underperforming schools - seems like such a saving grace. But once you look at it, it becomes clear that it's not the education panacea it's often portrayed as.

First of all, there's the obvious problem that there simply aren't enough top notch schools around to offer "school choice for all who want it." In New York City, for instance, there's barely enough school space in the good schools for the kids who live in the area. How are you then going to bring in other kids who want to attend those schools? We can't really rely on a system that has the built-in limitation of space to address all of the problems facing schools. There isn't enough space in the high performing schools to bring in all the students from the low performing schools.

Advocates for choice will counter this by saying that school choice provides market incentives for all schools to do better. Under this thinking, if the schools have to essentially compete for students, the low performing schools will get their acts together and actually start teaching (or something like that). Then, the argument goes, all schools will get better. The only problem is that the facts don't support this argument. As Sol Stern (a one-time school choice advocate) wrote in this article for City Journal, the facts of vouchers don't support the hype. Stern looked at the case of Milwaukee, a city that had instituted a fairly comprehensive voucher-type program. What he found was that the schools did not get better. Competition did not breed better schools. The facts don't support the voucher argument. John Adams was right when he said, "Facts are stubborn things."

Choice advocates will then come back and say that while it may not improve the whole school system, vouchers or similar programs at least help the kids who get to go to better schools. But again, facts are stubborn things and they don't support this argument either. Washington D.C. implemented a voucher program for poor kids to allow them to attend better schools. Vouchers were assigned by random lottery from among the kids whose parents had applied to be part of the lottery. A study conducted two years after the lottery found no significant difference in student achievement between the kids who were selected by the lottery and went to the better schools and those students who applied but were not selected and stayed where they were. That's an incredible finding because it means that not only do voucher programs not help the entire system, they don't even really help the kids they're supposedly targeting.

There's no question that school choice is an appealing theory on how to improve schools. Intuitively it seems to make sense. Reality is more intractable. We need to recognize that education reform can't be a matter of pulling kids up one at a time. It just doesn't work. We need to recognize that if we want to improve the school system, we need to work to improve all schools. This is harder to do. But greater than the difficulty is the imperative for getting it done.

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