3 Common Fallacies about School Choice

On the whole, the competitive environment has helped both private and public schools alike.

The idea of school choice has been around for many decades. Its origins are commonly linked to Milton Friedman's 1955 essay, "The Role of Government in Education.” Since then, progress has been slow. Politicians and teacher unions have been resistant to change.

School choice has been gaining popularity, perhaps because access to knowledge has never been greater.

The $50 million in donations to the Democrats plays its part. Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) are among the party's biggest donors. The aim is quite clear: prevent membership from declining as a result of private competition.

The amount of money spent by unions has historically been effective. School choice has been restricted and support for it suppressed. However, school choice has been gaining popularity, perhaps because access to knowledge has never been greater. Nevertheless, there are still a number of fallacies that persist.

1) School Choice Takes Away Funding from Public Schools

Opponents of school choice, such as HuffPost, argue that public schools lose out. They argue that as public students leave, the funding for each student decreases. This then leads to poorer quality education. The article goes on to state:

When students leave the public schools for charter or voucher schools, the public school loses valuable resources.

This is a perfect example of how students are viewed. They are seen as “resources” rather than customers. Yes, private schools are also motivated by funds. However, they have to offer a superior service in a competitive environment. “Resources” won't be diverted away if public schools offer a superior service.

“Public Schools Don't Lose Money”: The Empirical Evidence

This is a red herring, anyway. Among over 45 empirical studies, 41 found a positive financial benefit to taxpayers and public schools. Three studies found a neutral impact, while one was negative. Even then, this had a net cost of $91 per student. On the other hand, the positive savings ranged from $820 to $7,322. The potential benefits far outweigh the potential costs.

The research found that these savings were possible because the majority of costs are variable. That is to say that costs are reduced once a child leaves. While funding is reduced, there is a net saving. This is because the variable cost of educating a child is higher than the state funding received. At the same time, public schools get to keep both local and federal funding

Greater Funding Doesn't Mean Better Outcomes

Even if the evidence of sustained public funding is not enough, there is sufficient evidence to show that extra funding doesn't always mean better outcomes.

Between 1970 and 2015, government expenditures more than doubled per student. At the same time, school performance has hardly improved. Reading, math, and science scores have largely remained static

The US already spends 35 percent more than the OECD average, or $3,300 extra per student. According to PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) standards, the US falls significantly behind the OECD average in math. In fact, it is outstripped by countries like Malta, Hungary, and Lithuania. Even in science and reading, the US ranks in line with the OECD average. It's spending $3,300 extra per student for not a lot of performance.

2) Academic Performance Isn't Improved

School choice doesn't improve educational performance. That is the common line from organizations such as BRIGHT Magazine, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Buzzfeed

These articles and others are quick to point to Louisiana's failing experiment. However, they are also quick to ignore two important factors. First, Louisiana operates a very strict school choice program. To enroll scholarship recipients, participating private schools must participate in state testing aligned with the public school curriculum, among other rules. Second, Louisiana is an anomaly. Out of 19 empirical studies, only three found negative academic effects, and two of them were from Louisiana.

Academic performance for students is improved, but public school students also benefit. From 34 empirical studies, 32 found positive benefits for public school students.

By creating competition, public schools have to allocate resources more efficiently. If they don't, they risk effectively going out of business.

On the whole, the competitive environment has helped both private and public schools alike. The reason? It holds public schools accountable. Schools must begin to treat parents and students as customers to be served rather than a captive audience.

Public schools suffer from the same syndrome as other publicly owned organizations. Districts overspend while resources are misallocated and wasted. That is the conclusion reached by a 2018 Goldwater Institute report. In a study of Arizona's public schools, it found districts overspent, misallocated, or otherwise wasted money in the areas of administrator pay, transportation and food service, and underused district buildings.

By creating competition, public schools have to allocate resources more efficiently. If they don't, they risk effectively going out of business. That doesn't look good for the principal or the teachers, so there is now an incentive to provide good schooling efficiently.

3) It Increases Segregation

The claim that school choice increases segregation has spread like wildfire. There are a number of articles that make the case.

There is no real substance to the argument of increased segregation. Its foundation is based upon the principle that white parents will leave schools with minorities, a trend referred to as “white flight.”

As minorities enter predominantly white schools, parents will move their children away. Schools are then left with a majority of minority students. The fear is that minority students will be left in underperforming schools, while white students attend superior and better-financed ones.

For the Benefit of the Upper and Middle Classes?

Kristin Rawls writes in Salon that school choice is purely for the white middle and upper classes. The article argues that minorities don't have the time to choose a school. At the same time, she quotes a Wake County parent and former teacher who stated: “they find the process taxing and stressful, recognizing that they may be unqualified to determine which school is best for a specific child.” By using this within the article, she gives credit to the idea that some parents are too ignorant to make the right decision for their children.

These arguments are condescending but also very misleading. Both African Americans and Hispanics are largely in favor of school choice. Only 20 percent of such minorities are against, whereas 34 percent of whites are. The evidence shows that African Americans are widely in favor of school choice. To say they would not make the right choice goes against the evidence of its support.

The reality is that choice tends to produce positive results. Why? Because it can’t get much more segregated than it already is. 

The reason for minority support is simple. Segregation already exists in schools. Minority kids in poor areas have no choice but to attend underperforming schools. Ultimately, minority populations end up in the same impoverished neighborhoods with no way out.

The reality is that choice tends to produce positive results. Why? Because it can’t get much more segregated than it already is. Students are assigned to schools based on where their parents can afford to live. The existing schools for minorities are already underperforming and underfunded, largely because of their zip codes. The support is there, but so is the evidence.

The Evidence

An OECD publication stated:

It often is claimed that school vouchers lead to greater segregation. However, this claim is rarely checked against the available evidence. In fact, the evidence is all on the other side— voucher programs provide a greatly reduced level of racial segregation by breaking down neighborhood barriers.

This statement is backed up by empirical research. Out of ten studies on ethnic segregation, nine show overall positive effects. The anomaly was in Milwaukee, which showed no visible effect. Such research can be interpreted in different ways. Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, looked into the Louisiana study.

What she found was an increased level of segregation in private schools. However, the study actually found a far greater decrease in segregation at public schools. As Greg Forster, an EdChoice Senior Fellow, stated:

this study actually found the voucher program created a significant net decrease in ethnic segregation!

Further Reading

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