Can competition really improve schools?
When an economist first introduced the idea in the 1950s, it was a notion both controversial and contentious. Education, he argued, was a commodity like any other, and would benefit from fierce, free-market competition.Skip to next paragraph
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It was a fairly simple idea: Parents and children should become consumers, and schools the product. If a school isn't up to snuff, parents move their children to a better one. Thus good schools flourish and bad ones are forced to improve, or else fall away.
Choice has since become the driving force behind much of education reform in the United States. Charter schools, school vouchers, and the ability to remove kids from failing schools are all attempts to let public education benefit from giving families more choice.
But the theory of choice has faced some difficult reality checks of late. Studies don't necessarily support the claims that students will perform better either in charter schools or in private schools made accessible by vouchers. At the same time, the idea that students should be free to leave failing public schools is bumping up against the simple reality that there are not enough seats in good schools to go around. It's causing some to ask if the growth of the choice movement may not be outpacing evidence of its efficacy.
"While choice is not bad for the individual kids or parents, our experience in New York is that it has done little or nothing to improve neighborhood schools," says Clara Hemphill, director of www.insideschools.org and author of several guides to the city's best public schools. If anything, she says, "it has drained some of the vitality and excitement from neighborhood schools."
Ms. Hemphill says she isn't against choice, "it's just that the market metaphor doesn't work. And I think the New York experience of 30 years is clear on that."
But for many others, choice remains the bedrock of education reform - a tenet not even to be questioned.
"I don't think the debate should be choice or no choice. I think that's absurd," says Henry Levin, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University. "It's how we do choice."
Choice, of course, can't be viewed as a monolith. It's best understood as a continuum of options beneath the larger umbrella of school choice.
They range from vouchers - which, with little government oversight, allow parents to use taxpayer money at any school, including private or religious - to open enrollment where children may choose from any public school within a certain area, whether a district, city, or even state.
Charter schools, independent public schools that operate with greater autonomy than traditional schools in exchange for a promise to perform, fit somewhere in between. Each has its proponents and detractors, so that a supporter of charter schools, for example, may at the same time oppose vouchers.
But even as the school choice movement surges forward - charter schools can currently be found in 38 states and are expected to be in all states by the end of the decade; 46 states offer open enrollment, up from 32 last year - experts are cautioning that the research to support such robust growth simply isn't there.
Data released last month by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), indicating that reading and math scores of charter school students on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress lag behind their traditional public school peers, has had the education world up in arms.
In an unusual move, a group of 31 scholars signed on to an ad in The New York Times, where the study first appeared, criticizing its methodology and taking issue with the newspaper's "uncritical coverage."
This week, Caroline M. Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University and one of the undersigned on the Times ad, will release her own more comprehensive study - looking at students in 99.5 percent of charter schools across the country. Professor Hoxby's findings, based on test scores from the same year as the AFT study, show charter school students outperforming traditional public school students in both reading and math.