Does School Choice Work? Check Yes, No, Maybe.
School choice has grown as a mode of deregulation, though more understood as an ethical urgency, in the face of failing public schools since the 1980s. Milton Friedman first postulated school choice in 1955 as a government funded, but market based voucher system (Hess, 2010). Yet, conceptualizations of contemporary school choice expand beyond vouchers to magnets, charter schools, homeschooling, and private schooling among others. While initial support for the contemporary school choice movement came from President Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party, the American Federation of Teachers, and African American metropolitan leaders (Hess, 2010), support has since expanded across ideological and political lines (Scott, Lubienski, and DeBray-Pelot, 2008). Yet, with expanding support comes mounting opposition and apathy, particularly as the success of school choice through the lens of boosting academic achievement — a primary concern of educational reformers — through school choice remains debated (Ravitch, 2010) (Hess, 2010). Given research results as well as the varied contexts and modes of school choice, it is both difficult and unwise to say definitively whether school choice “works” or does not work. In order to do so, full treatment must be given to the spectrum of school choice and its vast operational framework. While school choice works in some ways, it does not work in others — all of which is dependent on how research is construed and what “works” means to scholars and experts.
Generally speaking, it is hard to separate the ways in which school choice seemingly works and does not work as research yields different results and is interpreted differently. Even so, to do so would be a disservice to innovation and inquiry in the arena of school choice (Hess, 2010). The 2009 Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) survey on school choice shows that 47% of charter schools “performed similarly” to traditional public schools with “wide variation in performance” (Hess, 2010, p. 40). Diane Ravitch (2010) interprets the CREDO data to mean that charter schools do not concretely provide more success than traditional public schools. She rails against popular documentaries such as Waiting For Superman who champion this data in support of charter schools. For Ravitch, most school choice success hinges on school leadership and is thus, is situational. In this way, she draws attention to the scalability and feasibility issues inherent in making contemporary school choice work or not work. Hess (2010) himself pushes back against the notions of charter schools as the solution to failing schools as painted in some contemporary research. He argues the flaws of such studies in that the students tested would otherwise be in failing schools and that the studies focus on well-designed choice options.
In terms of vouchers, Hess demonstrates disagreements between scholars on the issue of school choice. He exemplifies two respected researchers who disagree completely on the success of vouchers — one says they were successful, with the other claiming no statistically significant success. Another survey on voucher success is similarly indefinite. While there is evidence to say that school choice programs — particularly vouchers — work, they work if “work” means higher graduation rates. For instance, Hess (2010) details the success of the Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C., where a federally supported voucher program helped to graduate students who received vouchers from the lottery at a higher rate. Nonetheless, a caveat exists; if school choice working is achieving much higher test scores, test scores of these students were not higher in a statistically significant way. Hess (2010) argues that school choice alone is not going to significantly impact student success, though families and parents tend to be happier with their child’s education and believe schools are safer. At the same time, he seemingly suggests that if choice is well directed, oriented, and aligned to specific contexts and environments, it could work — though the definition of “work” is limited to student success and students graduating. Therefore, once again, understandings of school choice success rely on how one interprets research according to his or her subjective definition of what school choice “working” means.
A more specific example of this ambiguity in school choice success is present in the debate of the Great Hearts Academy charter proposal in Nashville. If the goal of school choice working is to increase student diversity in schools or create school autonomy in order to bypass politics and bureaucracy, it may not work. If school choice means alleviating capacity issues, then it may work. The debate was mired in politics as state and local school officials clashed over whether to grant the charter, and the benefits of the charter to the community. Many questioned the role and influence of politics on education and its potential harm. The diversity component of the school, or lack thereof, was extremely troubling to those who thought the school would benefit affluent students more than disadvantaged students. Yet, in the same vein, proponents of granting the charter painted Great Hearts Academy as a resource to alleviating school capacity issues in the Metro Nashville Public Schools district. Thus, here, once again it is easy to see that in each situation where school choice exists, there is no clear way to say that it “works.” Such an analysis depends on one’s definition of “works” means.
Overall, assessing school choice presents a challenge. In order to ascertain if and when school choice “works,” one must define what “works” means, and consider a wide variety of situational and contextual factors — what Hess (2010) calls the “contingent nature of choice” (p. 43). Not all research or reformers examine the latter. School choice success depends upon what school choice is being used for: student achievement, diversity, stronger community ties, etc. It depends on the mechanisms in place: strong leadership, community support, active information about choice, parental engagement with a choice system, well run charters (if applicable), and fairness in lotteries for vouchers and charter admittance. One must also consider that research examines specific parts of the school choice scheme; some school choice schemes may work better than others. Is it feasible to compare studies that focus on charter schools and vouchers and say conclusively that school choice works and does not work? Saying that school choice simply works without specifying which aspects or kinds or conditions of school choice work is imprudent. Hess (2010) suggests that in order to know if school choice “works,” it is imperative to consider how school choice provides better educational opportunities and betters traditional public schools. In essence, school choice should create competition. Consider the ideas of market dynamics of exit option as detailed by Albert O Hirschman (1970) in the context of education. If enough students exit the traditional public school system through a school choice option, competition is created; thus choice should make public schools want to better themselves in order to retain students and thus funding and resources. Thus, for Hess, if this competition is not generated, school choice is not working. Still, not every scholar or researcher on school choice success interprets data within the confines of such a definition. Most evidence that Hess (2010) provides demonstrates very modest gains in district and school performance, in the implementation of a competitive voucher system. Thus, is school choice not working?
Yet, for Hess (2010), whether school choice works is the wrong question to ask. Instead, “the questions to focus on are when, how and why deregulation and monopoly busting improve quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services — and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling?” and does it “work well”(pp. 36–7, 48). Thus, seemingly more research and a better understanding of the way that market choice works is necessary to know if school choice is successful. In the current research climate however, given the ambiguity around the word “works,” and the various contexts in which it is does or does not work, one cannot say school choice works without fully exploring how choice may not work. While Hess maintains that school choice works for poor students who would otherwise be in poor schools and presents the opportunity to create schools more attentive to student and community needs, he explicitly underscores how evidence does not allow one to simply say that school choice works, particularly when data shows that school choice is not simply the solution to bettering student achievement. Thus if knowing whether school choice “works” is dependent on how research is construed and what “works” means to scholars and experts, a universal and broad-based conceptual framework of what “works” means may make a definitive answer more within reach.
Hess, F.M. (2010). Does School Choice Work? National Affairs.
Hirschman, A. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty; responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Ravitch, D. (2010, November 11). The Myth of Charter Schools. The New York Review of Books.
Scott, J., Lubienski, C., & DeBray-Pelot, E. (2008). The Ideological and Political Landscape of School Choice Interest Groups in the Post-Zelman Era. In B.S. Cooper, J.G. Cibulka, & L.D. Fusarelli (Eds.), Handbook of Education Policy and Politics (pp. 246–262). New York: Routledge.