OPPORTUNITY ESSAY: Achieving Economic Mobility Through School Choice

Anna J. Egalite and Patrick J. Wolf

School choice can play an important role in helping families achieve economic mobility. Whether through vouchers, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, charters, homeschooling, magnets, online options, or interdistrict or intradistrict open-enrollment programs, choice-based reforms reposition parents at the heart of their children’s education and opportunity.

Targeted social policies are often designed and implemented in ways that are intended to increase the social enfranchisement of the group under focus. By granting individuals ownership of decisions that directly affect their families and the power to assert themselves as they attempt to climb the economic ladder, certain public policies have the power to transform traditionally disengaged groups into active and knowledgeable members of society. Choice programs have been particularly successful at empowering low-income families.

The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (DC OSP) is a clear example of an empowering social policy. The OSP started in 2004–2005 with a $13 million annual appropriation, sufficient to fund vouchers of up to $7,500 for each eligible family to attend local private schools.

Researchers Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf use rich qualitative data gathered from focus groups, electronic polling, and interviews with participating families and community stakeholders to trace the social evolution of the program’s scholarship recipients.[1] Their research suggests that families initially struggle with the challenges of choosing a school but quickly move from being passive clients to being informed consumers of their children’s education. Once low-income families begin to direct their children’s education through school choice, attempts to take that responsibility away from them are met with forceful political activism to maintain parental choice.

The transformative nature of choice moves families from the margins of their children’s educational experience and puts them in the driver’s seat, eventually changing them from passive recipients of the status quo into effective advocates for their children’s educational interests. School choice grants parents the power to exit schools that are not working for their children and choose among a set of diverse alternatives, allowing them to contribute actively to their children’s educational success.

Of course, school choice is about more than just test scores; it enables families to express their different values and preferences. By its nature, school choice is inherently a family-centered reform, one that lets parents choose on their own terms. Every family is different, and through school choice, families select a school based on more than just state-defined measures of academic quality.

We do not have to hypothesize about what factors families would weigh most heavily if attendance zones were eliminated and a completely market-based system of school choice implemented. Post-Katrina New Orleans provides just such an example. Research by Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen reveals that families highly value proximity, sports, music, and after-school programs, in addition to test scores.[2] Other studies show that parents seek to use school choice to place their children in religious schools or language-immersion programs. While student safety concerns may be an underlying factor that could lead a family to choose a school that keeps its children occupied and off the streets once the final bell of the school day rings, the schools that parents select also reflect their sound understanding both of their children and of the skills and habits that will bring them success.

Schools differ tremendously in their overall culture and general learning environments, safety, teacher–student and teacher–parent relationships, techniques for motivating students, disciplinary policies, general support and encouragement, and opportunities for student leadership. Parents are uniquely positioned to recognize their children’s educational needs and the most important criteria for choosing their children’s school environment, defined along these many observable dimensions and more, and this will not always line up neatly with a school’s reputation for academic achievement, which can only reflect the average performance of students in that school.

Parents are better situated than bureaucrats to judge whether their particular children will perform well in a given school. Choice systems inherently recognize this fact and transfer decision-making power to those with the most complete knowledge of a child’s diverse strengths and unique needs.

The available evidence confirms the practical effectiveness of choice-based schooling systems. Take, for instance, data on high school graduation and college enrollment. The research on educational attainment underscores its importance for economic advancement. Human capital scholars have studied the value of a high school diploma and have shown that the investment pays dividends across multiple areas:

  • High school graduates have higher lifetime earnings;[3]
  • High school graduates are less likely to rely on public assistance programs;[4]
  • High school graduates live longer, healthier lives;[5] and
  • High school graduates are less likely to engage in criminal activity.[6]

Rigorous research has shown that school choice policies can significantly boost high school graduation rates. A government evaluation of the DC OSP revealed that use of a voucher increased the likelihood of a student’s graduating from high school by 21 percentage points — from 70 percent in the control group to 91 percent.[7] Because the DC school choice program was revealed to be one of the most effective dropout-prevention programs in recent history, it was estimated to deliver $2.62 in future benefits to society for every $1.00 it costs.[8]

Similar positive findings emerged from the nation’s oldest urban voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). According to the legislatively mandated, five-year evaluation of this state-funded school choice program, voucher recipients were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a four-year college, and persist in college at rates that were 4–7 percentage points higher than the rates for students who did not participate in the choice program.[9] The post-secondary findings from this study are particularly interesting, given the lifetime benefits associated with attainment of a college degree. In 2012, for instance, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned twice as much as those who had not graduated from high school ($47,000 per year compared to $23,000).[10]

Moreover, school choice can be a mechanism for the economic advancement of all students, not just the voucher user or charter enrollee. In a comprehensive and systematic review of the literature on this topic, Anna Egalite uncovers 21 studies of the competitive impacts of vouchers on public school performance.[11] Twenty of those studies show neutral to positive impacts of private school choice programs on public school performance, and just one study reports exclusively null effects.[12] Not a single study finds negative achievement effects on the students who remain in their assigned public schools.

Add to this growing body of evidence new findings for Louisiana showing positive competitive effects and Indiana showing null impacts in math and positive impacts on English Language Arts performance,[13] and it becomes difficult to ignore where the evidence points: A rising tide from school choice can indeed lift all boats.[14] By threatening a reduction in traditional public school budgets because of declining enrollment, choice programs encourage existing schools to improve their offerings; to take seriously and address specific student needs; and to implement the necessary reforms in teacher personnel policies, curriculum, standards, and general operations management to serve students more effectively.

In short, the best available evidence demonstrates that school choice can create powerful forces for economic and social mobility. School voucher options — which have the strongest research base from which to draw — have especially clear impacts on boosting educational attainment, which is the most important educational outcome for students. They do so while simultaneously improving outcomes for students who remain in traditional public schools.

Finally, parents are empowered and play a more central role in their children’s education when they are given the opportunity to choose their children’s schools. The prospect of expanding school choice to more disadvantaged populations promises to transform many lives for the better.

Anna J. Egalite is a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

— Patrick J. Wolf is a Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas’ College of Education and Health Professions.

Reading Proficiency

  1. Thomas Stewart and Patrick J. Wolf, The School Choice Journey: School Vouchers and the Empowerment of Urban Families (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
  2. Douglas N. Harris and Matthew Larsen, What Schools Do Families Want? (and Why?) Education Research Alliance for New Orleans Technical Report, January 15, 2015, http://educationresearchalliancenola.org/files/publications/Technical-Report-Final-Combined.pdf (accessed May 12, 2015).
  3. Cecilia Elena Rouse, “The Labor Market Consequences of an Inadequate Education,” paper presented at Social Costs of Inadequate Education Symposium, Teachers College, Columbia University, October 24–25, 2005.
  4. Jane Waldfogel, Irwin Garfinkel, and Brendan Kelly, “Public Assistance Programs: How Much Could Be Saved with Improved Education?” paper presented at Social Costs of Inadequate Education Symposium, Teachers College, Columbia University, October 24–25, 2005.
  5. Peter Muennig, “The Economic Value of Health Gains Associated with Education Intervention,” paper presented at Social Costs of Inadequate Education Symposium, Teachers College, Columbia University, October 24–25, 2005.
  6. Lance Lochner and Enrico Moretti, “The Effect of Education on Crime: Evidence from Prison Inmates, Arrests, and Self-Reports,” American Economic Review, Vol. 94, No. 1 (March 2004), pp. 155–189.
  7. Patrick Wolf, Babette Gutman, Michael Puma, Brian Kisida, Lou Rizzo, Nada Eissa, and Matthew Carr, Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program: Final Report. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, June 2010, http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf (accessed June 15, 2015).
  8. Patrick J. Wolf and Michael McShane, “Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze? A Benefit/Cost Analysis of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Education Finance and Policy, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 74–79.
  9. Joshua M. Cowen, David J. Fleming, John F. Witte, Patrick J. Wolf, and Brian Kisida, “School Vouchers and Student Attainment: Evidence from a State-Mandated Study of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program,” Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 147–168.
  10. “Indicator 3: Annual Earnings of Young Adults,” in Grace Kena, Susan Aud, Frank Johnson, Xiaolei Wang, Jijun Zhang, Amy Rathbun, Sidney Wilkinson-Flicker, and Paul Kristapovich, The Condition of Education 2014, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2014–083, May 2014, p. 10.
  11. Anna J. Egalite, “Measuring Competitive Effects from School Voucher Programs: A Systematic Review,” Journal of School Choice, Vol. 7, No. 4 (2013), pp. 443–464.
  12. Of these 20 studies, 17 found exclusively positive effects, three found neutral-to-positive effects, and only one found exclusively neutral effects.
  13. Anna J. Egalite, “Competitive Impacts of Means-Tested Vouchers on Public School Performance: Evidence from Louisiana and Indiana,” Harvard Kennedy School, Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Paper Series No. PEPG 14–05, 2015, www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/PDF/Papers/PEPG14_05_Egalite.pdf (accessed May 13, 2015).
  14. Caroline Minter Hoxby, “Rising Tide,” Education Next, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 2001), pp. 68–74.

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2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity

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2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America

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2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity

The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America