"Contrary to recent editorials in some major U.S newspapers, the empirical research on school choice programs is far more positive than not," DiPerna writes at EducationNext.
Summaries of the effects of multiple programs generally show positive effects, as does a meta-analysis of gold-standard experimental research on school choice by Shakeel, Anderson, and Wolf (2016). Participating students usually show modest improvements in reading or math test scores, or both. Annual gains are relatively small but cumulative over time. High school graduation and college attendance rates are substantially higher for participating minority students compared to peers. Programs are almost always associated with improved test scores in affected public schools. They also save money. Those savings can be used to increase per-pupil spending in local school districts. Studies also consistently show that programs increase parent satisfaction, racial integration, and civic outcomes.In short, DiPerna writes, "the many places where we have observed significant positive results from choice programs swamp the few where we have seen negative findings." Still, he says, amid all the empirical evidence we need to remember to keep our eye on the ball:
Researchers and policymakers must carefully balance the need for data-driven evidence with the reality that educational choice is, at its core, an issue of parental empowerment [emphasis added]. A voucher, education savings account, or tax-credit scholarship gives real voice to families. Their students are no longer bureaucratically assigned to a school; rather, they are financially enabled to find the best education provider for their children...
Pondiscio emphasizes this same theme in an excellent piece over at U.S. News.
Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [Neal] McCluskey and other advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence—and look no further—to decide whether choice "works," we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.
That's really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires, and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor, or musician, the "evidence" that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child's talents or interests or your family's values and traditions, the question of whether school choice "works" has already been answered. It's working perfectly for you.
In sum, Pondiscio says, "the desirability of school choice and educational pluralism is a values-driven question, not an evidence-based one." That's a truth we must always articulate.
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