Yesterday, Politico ran a story on school choice programs claiming that American taxpayers “will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition — and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.” In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence both that school choice works and that it saves money.
On the question of whether school choice results in superior learning, Politico makes the wrong comparisons. For example:
In Milwaukee, just 13 percent of voucher students scored proficient in math and 11 percent made the bar in reading this spring. That’s worse on both counts than students in the city’s public schools. In Cleveland, voucher students in most grades performed worse than their peers in public schools in math, though they did better in reading.
It is not accurate to compare disadvantaged students participating in a school choice program to the general population, which includes children from wealthy families, just as it would be inaccurate to compare all private school students against all public school students (which would show a clear advantage to the former over the latter). That’s comparing apples and orangoutangs. The most accurate comparison is a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of social science. As James Pethokoukis and Michael McShane pointed out over at the AEIdeas blog, Politico fails to mention that 11 of 12 RCTs found that choice improves student outcomes. The last study found no statistically significant difference while no study found any harm.
Many of the gains were small, though statistically significant, and often the gains were only for certain subgroups (generally low-income blacks) who had the least schooling options at the outset. However, based on the available evidence, even the most pessimistic reading of the data must conclude that school choice does no harm, on average. Even then, in addition to more satisfied parents, school choice is a great boon to taxpayers as it produces similar (or better) results at a much lower cost.