Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Research Continues to Favor School Choice

As is typical with social innovations, school choice has now been the subject of literally scores of evaluation studies.

The first, and most obvious, thing to test is whether achievement test scores improve for students whose parents are allowed to opt out of the government monopoly and choose schools.

The answer: the studies are not entirely consistent, but the range of outcomes is “no effect” to “substantial positive effects.”

But there are other dimensions to the issue.

Proponents of the public school monopoly sometimes claim it is necessary for civic cohesion. All kids, they say, need to be taught to be good American citizens. It’s quite doubtful that public schools have that agenda any more. More typically, they engage in politically correct indoctrination.

But it seems that choice schools in fact promote the values that public schools were traditionally supposed to.

A recent study reviews the literature.
For this review, I examine the results of 21 quantitative studies regarding the effects of school choice on seven civic values that relate to the capacity of individuals to perform as effective citizens in our representative democracy. The values, in order from the most studied to the least studied, are political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills, and patriotism.

The studies are divided into two categories, based on the statistical rigor with which the investigation was conducted. To qualify for inclusion in this review, a study had to be a quantitative analysis that controlled for observed differences in the backgrounds of the students attending different schools. To be classified as rigorous, the study also had to attempt to correct for the tendency of students and families to sort themselves into different schools and school sectors based on unobserved factors, a research challenge commonly referred to as selection bias.

[T]he 59 findings from existing studies suggest that the effect of private schooling or school choice on civic values is most often neutral or positive. Among the group of more-rigorous studies, 12 findings indicate statistically significant positive effects of school choice or private schooling on civic values and 10 suggest neutral results. . . . Only one finding from the rigorous evaluations indicates that traditional public schooling arrangements enhance a civic value.

With one exception, the findings regarding the effect of school choice on political tolerance are confined to the neutral-to-positive range. Eleven findings—five of them from the more-rigorous studies—indicate that school choice increases political tolerance. For example, one experimental voucher study in Washington, D.C., found that nearly one-half of the students who switched to a private school said they would permit a member of their disliked group to live in their neighborhood, compared with just over one-quarter of the students in the public school control group.
If choice schools are at minimum as good as public schools (and a lot of studies say they are better), that would seem to be plenty of reason to let people use them.

But there is another reason: cost.

A recent study by the pro-choice Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation found that taxpayers save money when choice schools are encouraged, since the typical voucher at a choice school costs less than the taxpayer subsidy to public schools.

The study estimated that since 1990 taxpayers have saved $443,848,581 due to the operation of twelve choice programs. $22,296,189 of this represents the impact on state budgets, and $421,552,391 the effect on school district budgets.

There is a whole congeries of interests, of course, who would like for education to cost more: school administrators who would rather head large bureaucracies than small lean ones, political activists who specialize in influencing public school systems but would have little power over private schools, and a teachers’ union that profits from the involuntary unionization imposed on public school teachers.

But taxpayers are a different matter.

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