Lindsey M. Burke and Rachel Sheffield with the Heritage Foundation have put together a nice paper on school choice achievements this year, “School Choice in America 2011:  Educational Opportunity Reaches New Heights.”  It is only 23 pages, but half of that are footnotes. It packs a lot of information into one small easy to read paper.  It is available to read in full Here.

Burke and Sheffield offer a brief listing of the 18 states and Washington, D.C. which offer private school choice.  They then give a review of the reforms to expand or create school choice that were implemented this year. Next they provide a by state review of the 18 states and D.C. which provide some form of private-school choice.  What we really liked about this paper was the brief descriptions of the various forms of public-school choice, their benefits and the evidence in a concise and short manner.  We share some highlights below, but again it is a brief paper and for the best understanding you may want to read the paper in full.

Private-school-choice policies allow parents to keep their own money and choose a private school that is best for their children. Private-school-choice policies include vouchers and scholarship programs that let parents use a portion of their child’s public-school funding to enroll in a private school.  They also include tax credits or deductions  that  provide tax  rebates  or  relief  for  the  purchase  of  private-school tuition or for making a donation to a charity that awards tuition scholarships. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) provide families with control over their child’s portion of state education funding. Through ESAs, the state deposits per-pupil education funds into a savings account controlled by parents, which can be used for private-school tuition, online education, homeschooling, or saving for college. Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year.

In addition to private-school choice, many states now offer families the opportunity to choose the best public schools for their children. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 73.2 percent of children attend an assigned public school, down from 80 percent in 1993. Sixteen percent of students attended a public school of choice in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available), compared to just 11 percent in 1993.

The Education Commission of the States also reports that open enrollment policies are flourishing. Only four states—Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia—have not enacted some form of open enrollment.  Open-enrollment policies can be either intra-district, allowing students to choose from schools within their assigned district, or inter-district, allowing students to choose schools from outside their assigned district. Some states have mandatory open-enrollment policies that require districts to participate, while other states have voluntary policies, allowing districts to choose whether to participate in a public-school-choice option.

Charter Schools.  The proliferation of charter schools has contributed to the increase in the number of children attending a chosen public school. Charter schools, which are publicly funded, are free from many of the rules and bureaucracy governing traditional public schools. Charter schools are held accountable to certain performance standards set by their governing authority. Charter schools generally operate with greater freedom from government regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools frequently offer innovative curriculum and pedagogy and provide parents an alternative to their assigned public school.  The Center for Education Reform reports that an estimated 1.5 million children attended charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia during the 2009–2010 school year. Charter schools are a growing presence in many school districts across the country, and the demand for seats in these schools is high, with roughly 65 percent reporting waiting lists (up from 58 percent in 2008).

Homeschooling.  Homeschooling is legal in every state and gives families the opportunity to take their children out of the traditional public-or private-school setting, allowing parents or instructors to teach their children at home. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 3 percent of school-age children (1.5 million) were homeschooled in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available), an increase of 36 percent since 2003, and an impressive 74 percent increase since 1999.  Other sources suggest that the number of homeschooled students was up to 2.04 million in 2010. Homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing schooling trends in the United States, along with the charter-school movement, and is increasing in popularity among minority populations. The ability for parents to provide moral or religious instruction of their choosing, a safe environment, and to provide instruction tailored to meet their children’s needs are among the many reasons families cite for choosing to home school.

Virtual  Education.  Virtual education and the proliferation of online learning are also providing greater educational choice for families. Most states now offer some form of online learning—from remedial course work to Advanced Placement classes—providing access to courses that would otherwise be inaccessible to many students. Participation in online learning programs grew 40 percent during the 2009–2010 school year, with approximately 1.5 million students enrolled in online courses during this time. According to the International Association for K–12 Online Learning, 48 states and Washington, D.C., offer online learning to their students, and 27 states plus D.C. operate one or more fulltime online schools.

Increases in Academic Achievement. In March 2011, researcher Greg Forster conducted an analysis of all “gold standard” random-assignment studies that had been conducted to date on school choice programs across the country. In all, of the 10 random-assignment studies of the effects of school voucher programs on children’s academic achievement in math and reading, Forster found that six had a positive impact on achievement.  Three of the studies found that voucher programs benefited some, but not all, participants; one study found no impact on academic achievement. According to Forster, not a single study found a negative effect on student academic achievement.

Increases in Academic Attainment.  School choice significantly increases the likelihood that a child will graduate from high school.  Education researcher Patrick Wolf, who conducted and authored a federally mandated evaluation of the D.C.  Opportunity Scholarship Program in June 2010 examined the impact of voucher use on the academic attainment rates of participating children. Using a gold standard methodology… found that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program significantly increased students’ likelihood of graduating from high school. Students who were offered a scholarship through the random lottery (but did not necessarily use it) had a graduation rate 12 percentage points higher than  the  control  group  of  students  who  were  not offered a scholarship. Moreover, Wolf and his team of  researchers examined the impact of actual voucher use, finding that  students who were offered a scholarship and actually used it to attend private school had a 21 percentage point increase in their graduation rate. Ninety-one percent of students who used a voucher to attend private school graduated high school.

In March 2011, researchers released an evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program on student academic attainment levels. Researcher John Witte led the evaluation of educational attainment levels and post-secondary enrollment rates of Milwaukee Parental Choice Students compared to those of Milwaukee Public School [MPS] students.  Comparing a cohort of ninth-grade voucher students with a “carefully matched” sample of ninth graders in the MPS system, and using parent surveys and school records to glean data on attainment levels, Witte determined that the MPCP, which provides vouchers to approximately 21,000 low-income  children in Milwaukee, significantly increased the chances of completing high school for participating children. Notably, MPS students had an on-time graduation rate of 69.4 percent; MPCP students had an on-time graduation rate of 76.6 percent.  For those students who remained in either the public school system or the voucher program for a full four years—the duration of their high school experience—75 percent of MPS students graduated high  school, compared to 94 percent of Milwaukee voucher students. Compared to MPS students, Milwaukee voucher students were more likely to graduate high school, had higher levels of college enrollment, were less likely to drop out of school, and overall, had greater levels of academic attainment than their public school counterparts.  The researchers note the importance of the academic attainment findings:

That Milwaukee is a large, urban school district only adds to the importance of the question of whether school choice boosts the levels of student attainment. If quality of life is directly related to educational attainment; if attainment is a direct result of certain schooling conditions to which a student is exposed; and if these schooling conditions may vary as a result of individual parent and student decisions, then the long-term social and economic consequences of school choice programs may be far greater than the impact of such policies on more transitory outcomes like individual test scores.

Increased academic attainment levels also hold true for school choice options such as charter schools. A 2009 study by the RAND Corporation, conducted by researcher Ron Zimmer, found that charter schools produced higher levels of academic attainment than traditional public schools.

Greater Parental Satisfaction. A large and growing body of research finds high levels of parental satisfaction as a result of school choice options. In January 2009, Thomas Stewart and a team of researchers at the University of Arkansas conducted a qualitative evaluation of the experiences of families in the D.C.  Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP).  Notably, the high levels of parental satisfaction were coupled with substantial increases in parental involvement:

By the end of the second year of data collection, it became very clear to us that the vast majority of the families were moving from a marginal role as passive recipients of school assignments to active participants in the school selection process in very practical ways. For example, they were being challenged to collect information about several schools; review this information and use it to refine their choices; and eventually visit schools and engage teachers and administrators in a completely new fashion. This type of thinking and behavior is commonly associated with other big-ticket purchases like homes or cars.  Yet, the average family in the OSP does not own a home or car and often has not acquired some of the transferable experiences and skills that are involved with these transactions.  This realization suggested that most parents were essentially moving from the margins to the center of their children’s academic development.

Other school choice options, such as charter schools, also significantly increase parental satisfaction.

Increased Student Safety. One of the most frequently cited benefits of school choice, particularly among parents with children in large urban school districts, is student safety.

Positive Impact of Competition. But school choice programs have also been found to place healthy competitive pressure on surrounding public schools, creating an education tide that lifts all boats.

In his March 2011 review of the empirical evidence supporting voucher programs, Greg Forster also examined how school choice programs affect public-school performance.  Forster found that 18 of the 19 empirical studies conducted to date on the competitive effect of school choice on public schools found that voucher programs improved public-school performance; only one program had no impact.

In June 2010, researchers David Figlio and Cassandra Hart…examined the impact of the tax credit program on public-school student achievement the year the FTC was announced, during which time families were applying for the first time for vouchers to attend private school. Since the examination occurred immediately after the program was announced—before any students used the vouchers to leave their public schools—the researchers were able to precisely isolate the impact of competition. According to Figlio and Hart, “Therefore, any public school changes in this first year of the program, when public school students were applying for vouchers but before they actually used them, can be thought of as a pure competition effect of vouchers.”  The competitive impact of school choice created by the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “positively and significantly related to student performance.”

In April 2008, education  researchers Marcus Winters and Jay Greene released an evaluation of the impact of competition placed on public schools as a result of the McKay Special Needs Scholarship Program in Florida.  Winters and Greene note that “contrary to the hypothesis that school choice harms students who remain in public schools, this study finds that students eligible for vouchers who remained in the public schools made  greater academic improvements as their school choices increased.”

Why School Choice?

For nearly half a century, American public education has been failing millions of children. The past four decades in particular have seen stagnant graduation rates, languishing academic achievement levels, and a persistent achievement gap between white and minority students and low-income and upper-income students.

Graduation Rates. Academic attainment is one of the most important factors in predicting the future life success of a student.  But since the 1970s, graduation rates have remained flat, hovering around 73 percent. In some of the nation’s largest cities, fewer than half of all students graduate high school.

Academic Achievement. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 34 percent of fourth-grade children are “below basic” in reading, a designation that suggests these children are functionally illiterate. Nationally, 26 percent of eighth-grade children are “below basic” in reading. Of equal concern, 19 percent of fourth-grade children are “below basic” in mathematics nationally; 29 percent of eighth-grade children fall into the “below basic” category. While math achievement has increased modestly, these low levels of reading achievement have persisted for decades, unchanged since the 1970s.

Achievement  Gaps.  The failure of American public education to increase academic performance for nearly half a century has produced abysmal results for the nation’s most vulnerable populations: low-income and minority children.  While 23 percent of white fourth-graders score “below basic” in reading, 53 percent of black fourth-graders score “below basic.” In 2009, 17 percent of white eighth-graders scored “below basic” in reading compared to 44 percent of black eighth-graders. The achievement gap between low-income children and their middle-income and upper-income peers also persists.  In 2009, 49 percent of low-income fourth-grade children nationally scored “below basic” in reading, compared to 34 percent of their peers not eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch.

Education Budgets. In 2011, many states face budget shortfalls. Robust school choice options offer the potential for fiscal savings. Not only have school choice programs been proven to increase academic achievement, attainment, and parental satisfaction, in many cases they do so at a far lower cost than traditional public schools. The amount allocated to children for scholarships is typically considerably lower than what their state would spend per pupil in the public schools, saving money for taxpayers and empowering parents with school choice.  The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, for example, provides scholarships of $8,000 to $12,000 per child, while nearly $18,000 is spent per pupil in the D.C. Public School System.

What Congress—and State and Local Policymakers—Should Do

The current one-size-fits-all system of public education, whereby children are assigned, based on their zip code, to a local public school, fails millions of children every year. But past mistakes need not predicate continued failure.  As the late economist Milton Friedman once stated:

Full exercise of choice would invigorate the public school system; would improve it. Competition always  has  that  effect…competition is a way in which both public and private schools can be required  to satisfy their customers. In which the bad private schools will fail and the bad public schools will fail. So the fundamental assumption is simple: that competition is better than monopoly.

If we hope to improve education for all children, federal, state, and local policymakers should support policies that expand school choice options for families and put educational power in the hands of parents.

This Wall Street Journal video below, “Going Back to School with More Choice,” is not related directly to this paper, but provides a good discussion by Bill McGurn and Rachel Sheffield on the expansion of school choice this year.

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