School Choice: The Right Answer or a Good Excuse?

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School Choice Week microphone / Gage Skidmore

July 11, 2016; Washington Post

School choice has been central to the increasingly controversial national strategy for school improvement. Proponents look at choice as the energizing force that will push traditional public schools toward providing better education and as a cure for the widening gap between affluent white students and poorer students who are often black, Hispanic, immigrants, or in need of special educational support. Opponents of choice see it as exacerbating this gap, destroying critical neighborhood structures and worsening educational outcomes. The argument is heated and often more about opinion than facts.

A recently published study by Mathematica Policy Research looks at the reasons parents choose schools for their children and the overall impact of choice on one district’s schools. Steven Glazerman, one of the co-authors, said in a Washington Post interview that the study used its data “to find out better what parents want, how they trade off attributes of schools and then how that information can be used to predict consequences of different policy choices.”

Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, a major supporter of choice and school privatization, it is not surprising that the study found that choice brings positive results. Mathematica gathered its information about how parents go about selecting a school from a sample of 22,000 Washington, D.C. students who, in 2014, participated in the district’s school selection lottery. Three unsurprising factors were found to be the strongest driver of school choice: Shorter and easier commutes to school are preferred. Parents want their children in schools where they will be in the ethnic majority. And parents want better academically performing schools for their children.

While all subgroups rank these three factors as important, the tradeoffs that parents will make differ in important ways.

Lower-income choosers did not share the preference for schools with higher percentages of students of the same race/ethnicity and lower percentages of low-income students as higher income choosers. Also their distance preference was weaker by a statistically significant margin.

The study’s authors see these differences as demonstrating that school choice, properly supported, works.

Simulations suggest segregation by race and income would be reduced and enrollment in high-performing schools increased if policymakers were to expand school choice by relaxing school capacity constraints in individual campuses. The simulations also suggest that closing the lowest-performing schools could further reduce segregation and increase enrollment in high-performing schools.

Based on parental feedback and the current reality of school districts, it seems urban school districts should continue with this policy. Faced with schools that don’t teach their children well, parents are willing to send their children to schools that are more diverse and farther away. If you close low-performing schools in their neighborhoods, they’ll support moving their children to better-performing schools where the classrooms will have fewer children with similar backgrounds.

But those are not the only options open to policymakers. Parents were never asked if they’d prefer better neighborhood schools. And without asking this critical question, the voice of the “customer” may be less clear than it appears. The impact of poverty and racism on children, both forces we know do much to determine educational outcomes, go ignored. It also ignores the serious underfunding of many of our most challenged school districts (D.C. spending per student in FY 2013 was $17,953, second only to New York according to U.S. Census figures reported by Governing magazine), the community-building role that public schools play for neighborhoods already deficient in community infrastructure, and the lack of positive results from cities that have implemented this approach.

Chicago used this rationale when it closed 50 schools designated as “low-performing” and let parents choose replacements for their children. Two years later, there has been little indication of improved schooling or decreased segregation. For many families, the only result has been a longer, more dangerous commute to school.

Parents have an important voice as advocates for their children. But if the choice they are given is between two less-than-optimal outcomes, we fail them.—Martin Levine