Rising choice lifts all pupils

Even school-choice skeptics are beginning to concede that providing families with additional options improves the academic performance of those youngsters who change schools. But what of students who stay put? A common worry about charter schools, vouchers, and other school-choice strategies is that they will harm those "left behind."

Evidence from a recent Manhattan Institute study, the Education Freedom Index, suggests this is not so, that a wider range of viable education options improves learning for choosers and nonchoosers alike. Manhattan's new study gauges the extent of education choices currently available to families in each of the 50 states. It includes indices of the availability of charter schools, subsidies (such as vouchers and tax credits) for families choosing private schools, deregulation of home-schooling, and two kinds of choice within public education itself.

The top-ranking states include Arizona, which leads the nation in charter-school options; Minnesota, which pioneered public school choice and also offers tax credits and deductions for private school expenses; and Wisconsin, which is the home of the nation's first publicly funded voucher program. Trailing on the list are Hawaii, West Virginia, and Nevada, which offer few charter schools, heavily regulate home schooling, and have no interdistrict public school choice, let alone financial aid for students opting for private schools.

The fact that states differ in the amount of education freedom is no surprise. Yet, a more striking finding is that students have higher test scores in states that offer more school choices to families than do youngsters in states with less choice - even after controlling statistically for family income, race, per pupil spending, and class size.

A comparison of Texas and South Carolina shows how much difference choice in education can make. The two states have many similarities: Both are Southern states with comparable family incomes that spend about the same amount per pupil, have kindred pupil-teacher ratios and equally large minority populations. Yet, Texas regulates home schooling less onerously, offers more public school choices, and has many more charter-school options than South Carolina.

Results show Texas in 6th place on the Education Freedom Index while South Carolina comes in 43rd. As for pupil achievement, 24 percent of Texas students scored at the "proficient" level on recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, compared with 18 percent of South Carolina students. The average SAT score was also 42 points higher in Texas than in South Carolina.

While it is possible that other factors contribute to these performance differences between Texas and South Carolina, the strength of the relationship between choice and student achievement across all 50 states suggests that choice very likely plays a bona fide role in improving pupil learning for all, not just for those who benefit directly from the choice policies.

On reflection, this is not so surprising. Where families have more choices, schools are less able to take their students for granted. If dissatisfied families have alternatives, schools have greater incentives to attend to their children's needs and parents' priorities, if only to retain the financial resources that those students bring. It stands to reason that such motivated schools will do a better job of educating their pupils.

It's folly to suppose that improved learning will result from lavishing resources on schools without ensuring that they have incentives to use that money well. By creating palpable incentives for schools to do right by their pupils, choice policies boost the quality of education for those families that are "left behind" as well as those who benefit directly from the new options. Because schools can never know who will become a future chooser, a system with greater choice is likely to improve education for all its students.

This is not simply a theory. Today, some states offer many more educational options to their children and families and those states are enjoying strong performance. Vouchers are only a small part of the choices that states now make available. Charter schools, deregulated home schooling, and interdistrict public school choice have become more common. Efforts that states make to improve the availability of any of these options are apt to lead to improved student achievement.

The politicians have noticed. This year, both the Democratic and Republican platforms laud competition and endorse the idea of parental choice. Though the Democrats' platform stops short of vouchers, vouchers of certain types have recently been endorsed by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and the editorial page of The New Republic. It is time to turn research, rhetoric, and policy pronouncements into action by expanding the availability of choices in primary-secondary education. Doing so is likely to boost the performance of all students, not just those who choose.

Chester E. Finn and Jay P. Greene are senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute. Dr. Greene was primary author of the Education Freedom Index.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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