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School Choice: Doesn’t Hurt, Often Helps

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Breaking the chain between street address and the school a child attends–school choice–is not only moral, it works. Education Week recently ran a commentary from nine scholars who make that point. The nine, who include representatives from the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, say that in 20 years we have learned a lot about how to design choice programs, as well as how well school choice works. The article’s title reflects its content pretty well: “What research says about school choice.”

Studies about the effects of school choice–tax credits, vouchers, charter schools, and other options–have focused on three questions: Does choice benefit students who receive vouchers, tax credits, etc.? Do choice programs have an effect on schools as a whole (that is, what about the students who don’t participate)? Does it have a beneficial effect on the public purse?

The answer to the first question may be summed up as, “students who participate are not harmed, and in some cases they are helped.”

The answer to the second question is similar, though the evidence for voucher programs is stronger than it is for charter schools.

As to the third question, “the net impact of school choice on public finances is usually positive and has never been found to be negative.” (No surprise there; as far as I can tell, school choice programs always spend less in public money, on a per-pupil basis, than district schools.)

The authors rightly point out that our evidence on the effects of school choice are limited by the fact that school choice programs are very limited, both in size and in scope. School choice programs enroll well under 5 percent of all school-aged children. That means economies of scale or innovations that might come from a wider marketplace of education haven’t been seen.

They authors add that much public debate has focused on the demand side of education–how many students and which ones participate in school choice programs. The supply side of schooling, which is trapped in red tape and a 100-year-old mindset, can’t be ignored.

In short, school choice is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to “quality education,” however you define it. But it’s a part that, based on the evidence as well as normative reasoning, demands more attention.

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The authors include a helpful list of studies on the effects of school choice. I would paste it in here, but it’s much too long–a good problem to have!

John LaPlante is a senior fellow for Minnesota Free Market Institute at Center of the American Experiment. 

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