Critics of school choice bear the burden of proof now

Note: In recognition of School Choice Week we are reprinting this commentary by Center Founder Mitch Pearlstein, which appeared December 6, 1996 in the Pioneer Press.  Mitch and American Experiment have led this quest for real school choice from the very first days of the Center’s founding 27 years ago.  Mitch currently chairs of OAK, Opportunity for All Kids, a diverse coalition of educational leaders and advocates, including the Minnesota Independent School Forum, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Minnesota District, Center of the American Experiment, and the Minnesota Catholic Conference.


A useful way of evaluating Gov. Arne Carlson’s pathbreaking proposal on school choice is to consider how the very terms of the debate are changing.

Until recently, the burden, rightfully, has been on advocates of tax credits (and vouchers) to make the case that such a significant change in American education would, in fact, help sizable numbers of students do better in school.

But an increasingly persuasive body of research and practice has emerged over the last several years that suggests that policies designed to help students attend private and religious schools would indeed serve them well.  This is true particularly for many low-income and minority children.

This would seem to suggest that the intellectual burden has shifted to foes of choice; critics who must justify their opposition to a reform that doubtless would help many boys and girls who are doing poorly – often very poorly – under current arrangements.

Now mind you, I’m not oblivious to the fact that scholarly evidence is one thing and unadulterated political power – the kind regularly called on by the educational establishment in resisting choice – is quite another.  But this time anyway, let’s put aside questions of realpolitik and focus instead on what scholars have been learning about educational freedom and its benefits for real kids.

Milwaukee has had a choice program since 1990 in which low income children can attend private, albeit nonreligious schools.  This is what Professor Jay P. Greene of the University of Houston and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard concluded a few months ago about the first half-dozen years of Milwaukee’s venture:

  • Reading scores of choice students in their third and fourth years of the program were, on average, 3 and 5 percentile points higher, respectively, than those of strictly comparable low-income students in Milwaukee public schools.
  • Math scores were even more impressive as, on average, students in their third and fourth years of choice program scored 5 and 12 percentile points higher, respectively, than did comparable students in Milwaukee public schools.

Greene and Peterson summed up this way: “If similar success could be achieved for all minority students nationwide, it could close the learning gap separating white and minority test scores somewhere between one-third and one-half.”

In 1993, the New York State Department of Education found that Catholic schools with 81 percent to 100 percent minority composition consistently did better than public schools with the same percentage of minority enrollment.

For example, sixth grade students in Catholic schools outscored their public school counterparts in New York City by 11 percent in math.  Third-grade students in Catholic schools outscored public school kids by 17 percent in reading.

Professor Derek Neal of the University of Chicago found that among urban blacks and Hispanics nationwide, the probability of high school graduation increases from 62 percent to 88 percent when students are moved from a public high school to a Catholic high school.  Better yet, the probability of their eventual graduation from college more than doubles.

And in a now 15-year-old student led by the late James Coleman of the University of Chicago, one of the great sociologists of the last half-century, students in Catholic schools were found to be one grade level ahead of their public school counterparts in math, reading and vocabulary.

By no means is the aim of this recitation to beat up on public schools, to which I personally owe much.

Neither is it to ignore the various legitimate (though I would argue answerable) concerns held by many critics of tax credits and other school choice approaches.

And neither is it meant to suggest that only low-income families would benefit from Carlson’s uncommonly imaginative tax-credit and tax-deduction proposal.

One of its great strengths, in fact, is that it would improve educational opportunities – as well as reduce taxes – for all Minnesota families with kids in school.  It is essential to stress that it would do this not just for families with children in private schools, but also for families who choose to send their children to public schools.

Rather, the aim of this review is to solicit a response o this one question from those who oppose the governor’s plan:

Given that its now clear that many high-risk and other students routinely do appreciably better in some schools as opposed to others, are we not morally obliged to provide them with more such options – including nongovernmental school options – than their families can now afford?

I say the answer is yes, self-evidently so.  This is especially the case insofar as nothing in the arsenal of reforms regularly proposed by opponents of choice is nearly as promising as school choice itself.

Mitch Pearlstein is chairman of Minnesotans for School Choice and president of Center of the American Experiment.