Update on school choice

School choice has been promoted as a way to achieve educational equity — giving low-income parents the opportunity to select the best schools for their children. Advocates believe it also will create a competitive market that will encourage schools to improve. John H. Holloway, Project Director at the Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey, recently examined what has been learned about the success of choice programs in promoting these goals.

One study (Froese-Germain 1998) concluded that rather than creating more equal opportunities for families, choice programs may actually increase the separation of students by race, social class, and cultural background. Furthermore, studies do not demonstrate that choice improves student learning. For example, while parents in a voucher program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin were more satisfied with the school of their choice than they had been with their public school, their children’s academic achievement had not improved. No substantial difference in achievement was found between students who used vouchers to attend private schools and those who continued in public schools.

Holloway also found that, on average, charter schools differ only slightly from regular public schools in course offerings or accountability. Although charter schools can be more expensive to operate, they have not demonstrated improved student performance.

Mixed effects of charter schools

The presence of charter schools has had mixed effects on the traditional schools in their areas. A charter school initially may have a significant negative impact on the morale of teachers in the local school district, who say they feel significant added pressure to produce strong academic results, but a few schools report improved morale when teachers realize that their offerings equal or exceed those of the charter school. Nearby traditional schools almost always change when a new charter school opens in their area, but the kind of changes are not predictable.

Holloway concludes that while there is little evidence so far that school choice creates significant academic improvement, choice programs do appear to encourage innovation and promote the direct involvement of families in their children’s education.

“School Choice and Lessons Learned”, Educational Leadership Volume 58, Number 4, January 2001, Pp. 81-82.

Published in ERN, February 2001, Volume 14, Number 2.

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