School Choice Isn’t the Problem — It’s the Solution




The Post and Courier’s recent five-part series, “Left Behind: The unintended consequences of school choice,” leads one to believe that the hardships experienced by some students at a North Charleston high school are the effects of school choice policies.

Yet for all the series’ strengths – poignant stories, good writing – it doesn’t deliver on its central claim. Indeed, readers will wonder how any of the stories, moving though they are, have anything to do with educational policies commonly associated with the term school choice.

The series’ logic is this: North Charleston High School has lost large numbers of students to competing charter schools. The remaining students – those “left behind” – are therefore struggling to keep up.

The problem is the “therefore.” It’s just not clear how the exodus has anything to do with the hardships chronicled by the series.

The authors chronicle the achievements of charter and magnet schools, and so concede the benefits of non-traditional public schooling. But they treat these educational benefits as a zero sum game.

The gains of the charter and magnet attendees mean losses for those “left behind” at North Charleston High. Even if we accept the reporters’ highly doubtful assumption that the departing students are the “brightest and most motivated,” it’s never clear why the departure of some should hurt the ones who remain.

Another problem is the way in which the series refers to “school choice.” The policies most commonly associated with that phrase – state-funded vouchers, tax credits for donations to organizations that pay tuition costs at independent schools – are almost totally absent in South Carolina. Current state law makes limited tax credit scholarships available to exceptional needs students, but to no one else.

Moreover, the argument that school choice policies harm public schools simply isn’t supported by the evidence. 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 this should be so. 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. The presence of competing schools may actually encourage traditional public schools to find better ways to serve their students.

The Post and Courier’s series itself would seem to back this up: we learn that North Charleston High added four programs this year, and plans to add engineering and law enforcement programs next year.

One thing the series does demonstrate, however, is a correlation between the poverty index of a school’s student body and its ACT scores. Since the more affluent students have left North Charleston High, the thinking seems to be, the school’s overall test scores will suffer.

Well, maybe. The series doesn’t actually provide data to support that assumption, but it’s conceivable. There is zero evidence, however, that the academic performance of individual remaining students have suffered as a result of the exodus.

For all we know, it might have improved, since some of the students were no doubt sent to other schools precisely because they were experiencing behavioral or learning problems at North Charleston High.

What we do know is this: In no fewer than 12 empirical studies using random assignment – the gold standard of social sciences – to examine how school choice programs affect the 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.

This commentary was originally published in the Charleston Post and Courier on August 25, 2015.


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