The Five Worst Arguments against School Choice


Over the last thirty years or more, well-meaning reformers have tried valiantly to improve educational results within public education systems. Prominent among their reforms have been increasing education funding and expanded pre-school programs, but these efforts have failed to live up to their promise. The one reform that has produced impressive results is a body of reforms collectively known as “school choice.”

The chief idea behind these reforms is this: Expand educational options and give parents the prerogative to choose from among those options. The most successful of these reforms have involved vouchers and/or tax credit scholarships. If parents can’t find an educational option that meets the needs of their child, the state will fund – or help to fund – a different option.

With vouchers or tax credit scholarships, parents are no longer forced to send their children to only one school. That openness, in turn, encourages schools – public and private – to work creatively and innovate in an effort to meed the needs of students.

The trouble? School choice is still the object of specious arguments based on flimsy or no evidence. Here are five of the most popular:

School choice doesn’t improve educational outcomes.

The impressive results associated with school choice are well documented. There have been 12 empirical studies using random assignment — the gold standard of social sciences — to examine how school choice programs affect academic performance. All 12 found consistently positive results. Six found a positive benefit for all student participants, five found positive results for some students but not all, and one found no impact. Not one of the studies found a harmful effect to participants’ academic performance.

School choice hurts public schools.

Detractors will often contend that the availability of school choice programs harms public schools. The “best” students leave for other schools, the thinking goes, leaving the “worst” students in public schools.

The research tells a different story. Out of 23 empirical studies that examine the effect of school choice on public schools, 22 found that the availability of school choice programs boosted academic performance at public schools. The remaining study found no effect.

It’s easy to see why. Most public schools — certainly this is true of South Carolina’s — receive funding based on the number of students they serve. Thus a decline in enrollment won’t decrease a school’s funding relative to its student base. Further, the presence of competing schools may actually encourage traditional public schools to find better ways to serve their students.

School choice increases segregation.

The evidence doesn’t support this claim. One meta-analysis examined eight empirical studies on this question. All eight either compared the racial composition of schools to the larger metropolitan area in which they were located, or measured the occurrence of racial homogeneity in schools. Of the eight studies, seven found that school choice moved students into less segregated schools, and one study found no effect.

Studies using other methods have found similar results. One research paper from the Brookings Institution examined district segregation levels over time. That study found charter schools (a form of public school choice) were unlikely to increase segregation.

Or to give an example specific to vouchers, a 2013 study sponsored by the state of Louisiana examined the state’s voucher program. That study found it improved racial integration in 16 of the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders, having little to no impact on the rest.

School choice only benefits the wealthy.

This is false.

But back up for a moment. The existing public school system sorts students based on geography – wealthier families have the option of moving into more expensive communities with higher quality school districts. Another Brookings paper found that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” Lower income families who cannot afford higher rental rates or home prices are more likely to remain trapped in low performing school districts.

Without school choice, well off families will also have the option of sending their children to independent schools, even as less well off families will remain stuck in the schools dictated by the state.

Some of the most popular school choice programs – tax credit scholarships (in which donors receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that pay the cost of tuition at independent schools) and vouchers (in which state funding goes directly to families for tuition payments and other school costs) – are popular precisely because they make options open to wealthier families open to poorer families too.

Studies of existing tax credit scholarship programs in Florida and Arizona have found that the average families receiving scholarships under these programs earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Similarly, in 2010 the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee reported the average family receiving a scholarship under Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship program earned $29,000.

South Carolina already has school choice.

The extent of school choice programs in South Carolina is severely limited. South Carolina does have charter schools, but the funding for South Carolina’s statewide charter school district ($69.5 million in fiscal year 2016) is tiny when compared to traditional public schools.

South Carolina also has tax credit scholarships and direct tax credits for tuition paid to independent schools, but these programs are only available to exceptional needs children and are capped at $8 million a year, and $4 million a year respectively.

The most well known and direct school choice program – vouchers, in which public education funds follow the child – doesn’t exist in South Carolina at all.

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