originally posted Jul 24, 2008
Are there studies that clear the validity checks proposed here and still come to positive conclusions about choice? Yes. The work of Mark Schneider, Paul Teske, and various colleagues is a good example. They have a clear concept of choice and what it should do (that is, they have a theory); they creatively address (if not completely resolve) the challenge of selection bias; their work is published in the top peer-reviewed journals of the discipline; their studies are not consistently affiliated with any advocacy group (the National Science Foundation is a primary funding source for their major studies); and they make their data publicly available for replication. Their findings show a number of positives for choice: increased parental satisfaction, increased parental involvement, and perhaps even some performance gains. Yet they also note that the positive effects are modest, the gains come without the participation of private or religious schools, and stratification and segregation are a consistent concern. 92 Though not without caveats, these findings support carefully crafted option-demand forms of choice. This is about the most positive view of choice likely to emerge from the scholarly record (293).
Even carefully targeted programs run the risk of becoming triage systems, in which those most able to take advantage of the opportunities reap the benefits and those least able to do so are left behind. And even students who do benefit are not getting the same choices as more affluent students (294).
Finally, there is the risk of violating what might be called the Hippocratic oath of education policy. Undoubtedly some public schools are so wretchedly substandard that choice could not make things worse. … Yet programs that promote divisiveness, increase stratification risks, and engender a class of politically protected service providers are not neutral. The record of radical reform in American public education is largely a record of failure for a simple reason: its promises invariably fail to significantly improve on what already exists. 95 (294)
There is no real secret about what makes a school broadly successful in terms of academics, socialization, and satisfaction: adequate resources, good leadership, good teachers, a vision and the autonomy to act on it, committed parents and community support. Choice can never, by itself, supply all these (294).
Achieving these successes does not require a radical reformation of public education. If any choice plan carries the endorsement of the scholarly record it has the following characteristics. First, its objectives are to increase parental satisfaction, broaden educational opportunity, and create denser social networks within (not between) school communities. (Achievement or performance gains are NOT policy objectives.) Second, it seeks to achieve these objectives by offering an expanded set of educational options to a clearly defined and targeted group of disadvantaged students. Third, it does not involve private or religious schools. The policy objectives of such a program stand a reasonable chance of success, and divisive political battles are unlikely because the program can be promoted as progressive experimentation rather than radical reform. A controlled choice or option-demand choice program can achieve these objectives—but the more a program resembles a universal or voucher scheme, the more likely it is to suffer the downsides of choice for insignificant gains (295).
Smith, Kevin. “Data Don’t Matter? Academic Research and School Choice.” Perspectives on Politics 3:2 (June 2005): 285-299.