School choice not worth the current time, attention it receives

The election is looming ever higher these days, but fear not, dear reader. Today I will not be delving into the political mud. Instead, I want to shed some light on a topic often mentioned, but only rarely discussed, in today’s political scene: school choice.

First, what is school choice?

The notion that, by giving parents a greater ability to select where their children attend school — elementary and high school, namely — one introduces the classical market forces of supply and demand into the educational system and, as a result, improves the overall quality of education. School choice often takes one of two forms: voucher programs, where parents can receive some assistance from the government if they wish to place their children into a private school, or lotteries, where a large number of students apply to a small number of randomly assigned places at a high-tier local school.

But does school choice work?

Kinda.

It depends on what your definition of “work” is.

The metric in vogue in today’s research is student academic performance. The evidence I found came to many different conclusions, but generally said that, for students who participate in these programs, there was either no impact or a slight positive impact on their performance.

Which is a very long way of saying that, if there is a silver bullet for education, this ain’t it.

Educational scientists study a vast number of different variables that contribute to students’ academic performance. Some are known to hold a great deal of power over students. Socio-economic status, for example, is a big one, and so is the quality of their teachers. School choice, on the other hand, does not seem to do participating students any harm, but how much good it does is still an open question.

But I snuck a conceit in there: I said “participating students.” The rationale for school choice says that it should not only benefit those who can attend the best schools, but that, because schools would compete for the best students, it should also produce a halo effect, improving the general quality of schools in the area. Here, though, the science is even murkier. Some studies show a mild improvement in overall quality, and some even show a decrease in quality for certain students.

There are, after all, lots of ways for the educational system to muck with the Invisible Hand of economic theory. Devoutly religious parents may prefer a religious school over a secular one despite poorer academic standards, and in densely populated areas, the worst schools may still have a guaranteed selection of students just because there are only so many seats available in the small group of top-tier schools. If parents are unable to take advantage of school choice programs (or, worse yet, do not care enough about their kids to bother), then their children are plain out of luck. In fact, one study found that the presence of school choice had almost no effect at all on whether children in low-income households could attend a good school.

All of this leads me to question why school choice should be a topic of national politics. It’s not yet time for them to bother with it. Many experiments and studies still need to be done and should be done, too: There is enough data to suggest that school choice might be effective under the right circumstances, but we still need to discover what those right circumstances are. So, more small-scale experiments with school choice may yield great benefits in the future.

And they may answer one of the most important questions of all: In a world full of ideas on how to improve education, is school choice worth the time, effort and money currently being put into it?

Joseph is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached at [email protected]