The term school choice refers to programs or initiatives under which parents may select the school to which their child goes. The school choice movement endeavors to expand parents’ options. Currently, a number of alternatives are available to most parents both within and outside school districts. Districts provide open enrollment plans, specialized magnet and vocational schools, small schools-within-schools, and locally managed public schools. Of these alternatives, open enrollment, arguably, has been the most controversial.
I. Open Enrollment Programs
II. Independent, Publicly Financed Schools
A. Voucher Schools Compared to Charter Schools
B. Control of Charter Schools
C. Selectivity in Charter Schools
III. Historical Roots of the School Choice Movement
A. Criticisms of Bureaucracy
B. The Impetus for Charter Schools
IV. Are Choice Schools Better Than Regular Schools?
A. The Vast Gap between the Claims and the Evidence
B. Diversity of Outcomes
C. Is Competition Reforming Regular Public Schools?
D. Problems with the Research on School Achievement
1. Hazards of Aggregating Test Scores of Individuals to Schools
2. Fallacies of Statistical Averages
3. Implications of the Research
Open Enrollment Programs
Open enrollment programs allow students to attend any public school in their district or often throughout a state. First enacted in Minnesota in 1988, these programs currently are available in 29 states. However, only 14 percent of children in grades 1 through 12 participate. The low participation can be attributed to the fact that transfer programs threaten the ability of neighborhoods to control who attends their schools. Districts take advantage of loopholes allowing them to refuse students or to set quotas based on space availability and other reasons, and most states do not provide funds for transportation.
Although open enrollment programs may benefit individual students, the schools themselves are left unchanged or in worse condition. In particular, if a small school loses some students, it may need to cut staff and programs and increase class size. These cuts can prompt still more students to transfer, introducing still another round of cuts.
Independent, Publicly Financed Schools
Notwithstanding a wide range of options available within public school districts, during the past two decades the school choice movement has dramatically evolved into a restless push for publicly financed schools that operate outside districts. The quest by parents to be free of district control explains the popularity of education vouchers and various charter schools. In both cases, parents use public tax monies to send their children to self-governing, independent schools that operate without close oversight from local school boards. Most local taxpayers have no say in what happens in such schools. Both charter schools and voucher schools have been promoted on the basis of free market ideologies rooted in claims about market-driven organizations outperforming traditional public school monopolies. In truth, such claims may be premature.
Voucher Schools Compared to Charter Schools
Education vouchers set aside a specified amount of public money that parents may use to pay their child’s tuition to a receptive private (or, in a few cases, public) school. Receiving schools are known as voucher schools. The private sector is diverse. The Catholic Church enrolls almost half of all private school students. But one in three is in a school affiliated with a wide array of religious organizations and sects, and others are in nonsectarian schools. Most private schools are for elementary students, but some of them are high schools, and many more are combined K–12. Also, private schools are widely dispersed throughout central cities, the urban fringe, and large towns, but one in five is located in a rural area. Few Catholic schools are small (fewer than 50 students), and over one-third are large (300 or more students); this pattern is reversed for nonsectarian schools. One in four private schools serve wealthy, elite families, and the percentage of private schools with poor students is less than half that of public schools. Three-fourths of all private school students are white, but, in one out of five Catholic schools, over half the students come from minority backgrounds. Most Catholic schools have some students who qualify for subsidized meals, but other private schools are much less likely to have such students. Private schools are far less likely than public schools to enroll students with limited English proficiency.
Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free, nonsectarian public schools that have been released from many of the laws and rules that govern school districts, including, for example, rules pertaining to teacher qualifications, curriculum, and calendar. Funds allocated to the school district follow the student to the charter school. Like private schools, they are also very diverse. About three-quarters of charter schools nationwide are new start ups; most of the others are existing public schools that have converted to charter status. In practice, many charter schools are indistinguishable from other public schools. However, they are expected to take innovative approaches likely to improve student achievement. And some do. In fact, some charters are runaway mavericks, while others feature distinctive and sometimes controversial Waldorf, Montessori, or “back-to-basics” approaches. Still others are not schools in the usual sense. Nearly one-third of them are not classroom based. Eight percent operate as home schools, others are classified as independent-study schools, and several dozen online cyber-charters have no visible physical boundaries or school buildings. There are even some charter districts that have converted all of their schools to charters.
Control of Charter Schools
Depending on the state, charters can be launched by parents, educators, community members, state universities, private firms, or any entity designated by the state. Charter schools are managed by their own governing boards, and most are legally independent. Eleven states grant them independence outright, and eight others permit them to be independent. The 20 states that require their charters to operate as part of a school district account for about one-fifth of the nation’s 3,600 charter schools. Their legal status notwithstanding, as conceived, charter schools are supposed to operate autonomously, although their actual freedom varies widely in practice.
Authorized by state statutes, charter schools operate under a contract with an overseeing chartering agency. Over three-fourths of all charters are sponsored by local school boards. In addition, intermediate, county and state boards of education, as well as state education agencies, universities, and colleges sometimes act as sponsors. Sponsors approve long-term contracts. Theoretically, they can also revoke or refuse to renew contracts, but in practice a sponsor’s actual control over schools varies enormously. Adding to the ambiguity, several states require each school to negotiate with the sponsor over which decisions it is permitted to control, and the outcomes of these negotiations are not always clear. It does seem clear, though, that many charter schools are precariously straddling a bewildering paradox as autonomous, often legally independent schools, physically located within school districts that are responsible for them but not permitted or inclined to interfere with them.
Selectivity in Charter Schools
Unlike private schools, which select students, charter schools are legally required to accept students who apply, provided there is space and provided the child meets criteria that may be mandated by the states or set by the school. However, in practice, charter schools are not available to most students because of mandates and because of official and informal policies. Often charter schools give priority to local neighborhood children, either by mandate or by policy. Some states limit enrollment to low-income or low-achieving students. Most charter schools say they are oversubscribed, in which case they are allowed to select students randomly or from first-served waiting lists.
Some charters target recruiting practices to preferred types of families, some have formal or informal admission criteria (including recommendations, academic records, tests, or aptitudes), others counsel out the less preferred individuals, and many expel difficult students. Just how frequently charters use these informal practices is difficult to document. Most schools deny having any special admission requirements, but one in four charters admit to them. Many others require applications and interviews. Moreover, a large percentage of charters require or expect parents to work on behalf of the school as a condition for admission. While that may seem like a good idea, parent contracts exclude families that are unable to participate or choose not to participate. Given this arsenal of available exclusionary techniques, the admission practices of charters and voucher schools are not as divergent as they appear on the surface.
Historical Roots of the School Choice Movement
The school choice movement has been explained and justified in at least three ways:
- White-flight parents, seeking to escape desegregation programs mandated under the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, enrolled their children in private schools, which in turn created a demand for publicly financed vouchers.
- Reformers advocated government-financed schools that would provide options for low-income minority parents dissatisfied with their children’s assigned public school. Some voucher programs and charter schools have been reserved for minorities, while some others are required to maintain some form of racial and /or income balance. However, the aggregate national data showing that charters enroll a high percentage of minorities are misleading. State-by-state data show that a few charters have an abundance of minorities, but most enroll only a handful of minority students.
- Some reformers have succeeded in convincing politicians to support vouchers and charter schools under the implausible promise that competition from independent publicly financed schools will force public schools to reform in order to retain students.
Just one year after the Brown decision, the Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman introduced a plan to give parents public money they could use to enroll their children in any receptive private or public school of their choice. But it was not until 1990 that Milwaukee, Wisconsin, used vouchers and tax credits to create the nation’s first publicly financed urban school choice program. The school choice ideology got a substantial boost in the early 1990s as frustrated parents realized that school districts were incapable of meeting their needs. Critics were quick to cite low test scores, high dropout rates, overcrowding, and other negative statistics as evidence that traditional schools were failing to prepare the literate, skilled workers needed in a specialized, technological world marketplace. Frustrated parents, the critics argued, started looking for options, and independent choice schools emerged to do the job.
Criticisms of Bureaucracy
The problems often have been blamed on intractable bureaucracy and uncaring officials. But bureaucracy is not primarily responsible for the shortcomings of school districts. There were awesome societal forces beyond their control, including immigration, higher retention rates, and urbanization, all of which produced mammoth schools unable to meet personal circumstances. This society did not—or maybe could not—provide the resources and leadership that districts needed to cope with the drastic social changes that swept over them. In any case, frustration with bureaucracy does not account for why choice advocates pushed to make choice schools independent from public school districts. They said public educators were incapable of changing and too often were uninterested in doing so. Yet, in the early 1990s, even as vouchers and charters were being vigorously promoted, social conditions were already forcing school districts to adapt. They were ripe for sweeping internal reforms and were in fact experimenting with a host of reforms.
It was not necessary to force parents to leave school districts to give them viable choices. Choice advocates could have chosen to use their clout to push for choices within school districts. Instead, they chose to press for independent schools operating outside districts. Why? The short answer is that a nationwide ideological movement, which took hold starting in the 1950s, had gained momentum. This so-called laissez-faire movement called for the privatization of almost every commodity and service in the public sector. School choice advocates hitched their ideological wagon to a questionable free-market dream.
The Impetus for Charter Schools
Charter schools entered the picture in the early 1990s as a derivative of the voucher concept and, just as importantly, as a competitive alternative to school vouchers. For example, in 1993, California voucher activists placed a public initiative on the ballot to assess the voters’ interest in school vouchers. Their opponents felt compelled to give the public another way to regain control over the way their children were taught. The compromise was legislation authorizing charter schools to form. There seems little doubt that the promise of charter schools helped defeat the 1994 California voucher initiative. However, the charter school concept itself had become tainted by close association with private school vouchers, which in turn caused the school establishment to turn its back on charter schools. To meet the objections of educators, the California legislature imposed compromises, including caps on the number of charter schools that could be created.
Are Choice Schools Better Than Regular Schools?
In exchange for being released from most rules, charter schools are supposed to be more accountable than other schools, a provision that supposedly includes closing schools that fail to perform adequately. There are two types of accountability criteria: market and contractual. Market accountability means that a choice school must sustain adequate levels of enrollment. Voucher schools are subject to this type of accountability. Contractual accountability means that the school must fulfill a contract with sponsors under terms set by state legislation, which can include stipulations about meeting student achievement goals. Charter schools are subject to both forms of accountability.
In practice, both are problematic. Market accountability provides no assurance that a school is providing a sound education and operating legally. Contractual obligations, especially those pertaining to student achievement, are difficult for understaffed agencies to monitor or measure. Consequently, few charter schools have been closed for failure to produce good results. At the same time, more than 400 have been closed for fraud and mismanagement, and there are probably many others that have not been caught or sanctioned. Corruption and negligence are the unspoken downside of independence.
Charter schools, and even private schools that accept vouchers, were presented to the public as a way to improve student achievement. The bargain was better outcomes in exchange for deregulation and independence. In particular, it was understood that if charter schools could not demonstrate improved student achievement, they would be shut down. In addition, some advocates convinced legislatures that competition from charter schools would force public schools to improve. The preponderance of evidence has not supported either claim. Yet both programs remain strongly entrenched in state and federal budgets, sometimes because they are promoted by passionate advocates making claims based on trivial differences and wildly inconsistent data.
The Vast Gap between the Claims and the Evidence
Advocates say that:
- Choice schools lead to higher levels of learning.
- No study points to substantially poorer performance of choice schools.
- There is a surprising consensus among studies showing students enrolled in choice programs benefit academically.
- Data showing charter school students do worse on national tests than other students are baseless.
- Fourth-grade school students across the nation are more proficient in reading and math than students in nearby public schools.
- Competition from a few independent schools produces improved test scores among students in regular schools.
- Competition from charter schools is the best way to motivate the ossified bureaucracies governing education.
- Charters are reinventing public education.
In contrast, however, various researchers have concluded that:
- Student achievement in general has not been positively enhanced by charter schools.
- Some studies comparing charter schools and regular schools suggest a positive impact and others a neutral or negative impact.
- The majority of charter schools have failed to raise, and sometimes have lowered, student achievement compared to regular public schools in the same area.
- With some notable exceptions, charter schools are remarkably similar to regular schools.
- Charter schools are not doing anything regular schools wish to emulate.
- There is little going on in charter schools that merits the attention of anyone seeking powerful ways to engage children and youth in learning.
- Innovation in curriculum and instruction is virtually nonexistent in charter schools.
- Charter schools have produced no convincing data to illustrate that, on the whole, they are prudent or productive investments.
Further confounding the picture, some researchers overstate the implications from the data and, in some cases, distort the data themselves. For example, comparing a sample of charters with nearby regular schools, one researcher claims to have found a 3 percent difference in math proficiency and a 5 percent difference in reading, which she believes is significant (Hoxby 2004). Not only are the differences relatively small, but they were inflated because the author excluded the lowest-performing charter school students because they attended schools serving at-risk students, who the author supposes are not comparable to students in nearby public schools—even though a large portion of most public schools enroll the same type of student. Moreover, the study was represented as a national study when, in fact, the schools included represented only one-third of existing charter schools, and the students included account for fewer than 12 percent of charter school students.
Diversity of Outcomes
So, are choice schools superior? It is obvious that advocates on both sides of the question are arguing over inconsistent and often trivial differences. The rancorous ongoing debate only confirms that studies have not substantiated the overblown claim that choice schools are out-performing regular schools in meaningful ways. At best, the picture is mixed. It could not be otherwise given the diversity of choice schools. They take too many different forms to be treated as a meaningful unit that can be sensibly compared to conventional public schools—which of course also differ widely among themselves. Choice schools are not comparable either in programs or in students’ qualifications and therefore cannot be held accountable to common measures. The only thing charter schools have in common is their legal form—which is to say, the charter that authorizes someone to start a school. And the only salient feature the more than 7,000 private schools share is their nonpublic standing.
Is Competition Reforming Regular Public Schools?
What about the claim that competition from choice schools is causing school districts to improve? The short answer is that it probably is not happening. Reason suggests that schools will sometimes take notice when they start losing enough students and money. However, the research has not identified where that might happen, how big the loss must be, how much competition it takes, or what actions schools will take to improve student outcomes. This research has been plagued by defective analyses, including: inflating the significance of small differences, incorrectly aggregating individual scores to meaningless levels of abstraction, preoccupation with averages that obscure variation, and failure to identify where competition does and does not have an effect.
A few schools in a district are probably not going to provide real competition, and they certainly are not going to assure that regular schools will miraculously improve. Improvement takes leadership, skills, and resources—none of which is guaranteed by competition. On the contrary, competition can have a corrosive effect by draining off resources. Ultimately, competition might only cause schools to fl ail blindly without direction.
Problems with the Research on School Achievement
Using classroom tests to compare samples of schools is inappropriate for the following reasons.
Hazards of Aggregating Test Scores of Individuals to Schools
The idea that the success of a national program can be assessed with standardized tests comes from an obsolete industrial model that treats schools as factories processing students as raw materials—with average test scores reflecting the quality of the product. However, in the first place, a school does not control most of the so-called production process. The way students perform on tests depends on many extraneous forces, such as language proficiency, family structure, parental guidance, peer group influences, job and travel experiences, and the like. More importantly, standardized tests are constructed to maximize differences among individuals and so are inappropriate measures of higher-level organizational units like schools, school districts, and programs. The greater the variance among individuals at the classroom level, the smaller the differences become when their scores are used to represent schools, districts, or states.
Fallacies of Statistical Averages
Reporting averages that compare schools, programs, or states can mislead parents who are trying to find a suitable school for their children. Studies typically pool all included charter schools, across all classrooms, districts, and states represented, and then report the mean for that pool, without breaking out important differences among various types of schools and without taking into account the range of scores. Within a school, many students could be doing poorly even if the mean score reflects well on the school. For example, a school can increase its average score even when the students who improve are the ones in the upper part of the distribution. And among diverse schools, districts, and programs, mean scores only obscure the critical differences among them. Statistical means do not, for example, reveal the facts that many public schools are as good as private schools and that students who attend the best public schools outperform most private school students.
Given the enormous differences among both choice schools and regular schools, averages and other measures of central tendency are not only meaningless but also deceptive. Suppose that charter schools within a state or within a school district have higher average scores than regular public schools. That signifies only that some are better; but some may be worse. The question is how many are better? It is always possible that a few schools are pulling up the average, masking the poor performance of most other schools. What is most critical is the percentage of schools in the top, middle, and bottom of the distribution of charter schools and how those percentages compare with the distribution of public schools. Those distributions are seldom reported, and, consequently, parents have no way to assess the risk they are taking in sending their child to a charter school, even when average scores in the area are relatively favorable.
Implications of the Research
Putting aside inflated claims on both sides of the question, the only reasonable conclusion that can be justified by the evidence so far is this: even if some students are marginally better off in choice schools, the differences appear small and inconsistent enough that it does not make much difference, causing some to question why massive federal and state programs in favor of choice schools are in place. The fact that some choice schools may be good, even exceptional, is little comfort for parents who must make decisions about whether to risk sending their children to a particular school. Given the wide differences among schools, the risk is high. For parents, average scores are not helpful. They need better information. However, rather than sorting it out, researchers report only averages and then incorrectly aggregate data collected from individuals in classrooms to the levels of districts, states, and programs. Standardized test scores were not constructed for the purpose of comparing diverse types of schools or other macro units like school districts and states.
While independence from school districts has been vaunted as a solution to the problems confronting public schools, as things stand, independence appears to be a counterproductive dead-end. Autonomous schools are products of random market forces. There is no guarantee that they will locate where the need is greatest, or be well designed and able to meet the most challenging problems. Further, there appears to be no perceptible difference between many charters and regular public schools. And many charter schools seem to abuse their freedom, while many others are struggling to survive. In the name of independence, some students are being shortchanged with watered-down versions of comprehensive school programs, sitting in substandard buildings and facilities, being taught by inexperienced and sometimes poorly trained teachers.
This does not mean that there are no excellent choice schools. On the contrary, there are many exceptionally good ones. But there is no compelling evidence for the proposition that schools that operate independently are better than regular schools. And even if it could be shown that independent schools are marginally better, the difference could be explained by the small size of most choice schools or by good teachers, strong parental support, and a host of other reasons unrelated to independence.
The promise that it would be possible to demonstrate across-the-board achievement gains in favor of independent choice schools was impossible from the start, not necessarily because choice schools are inadequate, but because proponents promised too much and certainly more than can be demonstrated with test scores. However, charter schools, and even voucher schools, can be useful, provided they are linked more closely with school districts. For it is known that, while some choice schools are floundering, others are performing at least as well as regular schools or in some cases even as well as blue-ribbon public schools. These charter schools could be helpful to school districts if only they were made part of districts rather than being independent of them. The school choice debate artificially sets schools against one another when competition is not the solution. School districts need help.
In many conventional schools, unions may control teacher assignments, and, as a consequence, the best teachers are able to avoid the most challenging schools. However, if a district operated its own charters, it could use them strategically to entice good teachers into hard-to-staff schools and to address other district-wide problems, including those associated with at-risk students, English learners, special education students, and others.
Ronald G. Corwin
- Betts, Julian R., and Tom Loveless, eds., Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.
- Bracey, Gerald W., The War against America’s Schools: Privatizing Schools, Commercializing Education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.
- Cookson, Peter W., and Kristina Berger, Expect Miracles: Charter Schools and the Politics of Hope and Despair. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003.
- Corwin, Ronald G., and E. Joseph Schneider, The School Choice Hoax: Fixing America’s Schools. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
- Feinberg, Walter, and Christopher Lubienski, School Choice Policies and Outcomes: Empirical and Philosophical Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.
- Hoxby, Caroline M., Achievement in Charter Schools and Regular Public Schools in the United States: Understanding the Differences, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004.
- Lockwood, A. T., The Charter School Decade. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
- Ravitch, Diane, Death and Life of Great American School Reform: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
- Walberg, Herbert A., School Choice: The Findings. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2007.