Evaluating the data on school choice

Proponents and opponents of various school choice options – vouchers, scholarships, charter schools, trigger laws – love to throw data at each other . . . selectively. Not surprisingly, each side tends to cite the studies that seem to reinforce a pro- or anti-educational choice position.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute is a qualified choice supporter, but he’s also a careful scholar who frequently warns about the dangers of overselling school reform proposals. He and a group of fellow scholars have just published a survey entitled What Research Says about School Choice.

The full report is well worth reading. I’ll note a few of the major conclusions here. But first let me point out that while the studies generally suggest that school choice has positive effects for students AND (interestingly) public schools, these effects are fairly small. We’re not firing magic bullets here.

So here are the major findings:

  • “Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact.”
  • “Among charter schools, some high-quality studies show that charters have positive effects on academic outcomes. In other contexts, the findings are more mixed. In general, charters seem most likely to have positive effects on student achievement at the elementary level, in math, if the school is part of a well-established charter network such as the KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) if the student has been enrolled for awhile, if the student is disadvantaged, and if the school is in an urban area.”
  •  “Among voucher programs, these studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools. The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large. No study has found a negative impact.”
  • “Fewer studies have examined the competitive effects of charter schools on achievement in traditional public schools, and the studies that do exist vary greatly in quality. The more rigorous studies generally show that charter competition is associated with modest increases in achievement in nearby public schools.”
  • “Even under conservative assumptions about such questions as state and local budget sensitivity to enrollment changes, the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative.”

You can follow the links to the studies, and note the limitations and caveats that the AEI scholars offer.

Here’s a link to the AEI report.

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