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School Choice is the Cure for Over-priced, Underperforming Public Schools

For too long, families in California and across the country have assumed that poor-quality schools are an inner-city problem plaguing low-income parents who cannot afford to move near supposedly superior suburban schools. At more than one in 10 California public schools in neighborhoods with median home price approaching, and even exceeding, $1 million, less than half of students in at least one grade are below proficiency levels in English or math on state tests. Hundreds more affluent, suburban high schools statewide are graduating students who are not college-ready.

Given the current housing market, middle-income families may find themselves trapped in homes they can barely afford to keep and cannot afford to sell at a loss — all to be near “free” public schools that fail to deliver.  Putting parents in charge of their children’s education dollars would help.

Replacing the ossified monopoly system of assigned government schooling with a competitive, diversified education marketplace would introduce powerful incentives for all schools to perform. Money would follow students to any district-run or independent charter public school, regardless of family income or address. Universal vouchers, tuition tax-credit-scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs) would help parents in all income-brackets send their children to private, non-government schools, which are about half as expensive as public schools, on average. Hundreds of scientific analyses spanning three decades also show competition works.

In their review of more than 200 scientific analyses of the effects of competition on traditional district public schools and students, researchers from Columbia University Teachers College conclude, “A sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes,” including improved public school student performance, higher graduation rates, greater public-school efficiency, smaller class sizes, better teacher salaries, and improved housing values. Not one of the analyses found that competition harms the performance of public-school students.

Harvard University economist Caroline M. Hoxby finds that allowing parents to send their children to any public school regardless of where they live “is one of the most powerful market forces in American education,” improving “productivity by simultaneously raising achievement and lowering spending.” Competition from charter schools turbo-charges those results.

Even poorly performing traditional public schools in Michigan and Arizona raised annual math and reading scores once just six percent of their students began leaving for charter schools. The competitive effects of charter schools are so strong, in fact, that performance gaps between inner-city Phoenix public schools and surrounding suburban schools could be closed within a decade — without spending a penny more.

Nationwide, charter schools educate a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Charter students are also more likely to be proficient on state math and reading exams, 3.2 and 5.2 percent respectively, even though charter schools in some states receive only 40 percent of traditional district public funding. The proficiency advantage is even greater in states where charter schools are well established. In California, for example, charter 4th graders are 10 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and math compared to their traditional public school peers.

Adding competition from private schools multiplies those effects. American higher education is the envy of the world in large part because education funding follows students to the schools of their choice, public or private. If K-12 education operated that way, research suggests the ensuing competition would raise student achievement 28 percent, again without spending a penny more.

The empirical evidence shows that simply giving parents more freedom to choose their children’s schools, public or private, yields the same gains in math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, as raising per-pupil spending by more than $3,000 or increasing the median household income by $7,300, in current dollars. Low-income students who use vouchers to attend private schools also graduate at rates almost 60 percent higher than students in selective public high schools, and nearly 80 percent higher than students in regular public schools.

In none of the 13 states and the District of Columbia that have private school voucher and tuition tax-credit scholarship programs has public school funding declined. In fact, it increased an average of five percent annually in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

An analysis by Johns Hopkins University statistician Susan Aud for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation found those programs “have saved a total of nearly half a billion dollars.” She adds, “School choice allows students to attend the schools of their choice at a lower cost than they would incur in the public school system, contrary to the dire fiscal speculations of its critics.”

Freedom may not be free, but when it comes to education reform, it’s a lot more effective, and less expensive, than the status quo.

Written By

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is senior fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento. She is co-author with Lance T. Izumi and Rachel S. Chaney of the recent book "Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice" (San Francisco, CA: Pacific Research Institute, 2007), which was supported by a grant from the Koret Foundation.

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