Commentary

“Poor Choices” Yield Better Education

The Texas Supreme Court has given lawmakers until next June to come up with a new school funding system that is equitable, adequate, and constitutional. To meet those goals, legislators are considering a host of options from district mergers to school choice.

As they debate these alternatives, lawmakers would do well to consider a new study of public and private education released this week by the Cato Institute. Its authors, University of Newcastle professors James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, spent the last two years investigating schools in some of the most destitute regions of the globe. Their findings cut to the heart of the U.S. controversy over parental choice.

A common objection to education tax credits and school vouchers is the belief that they could only ever serve a small fraction of students, leaving behind the majority – particularly among the disadvantaged – in public schools. Contrary to that belief, Tooley and Dixon found that roughly two thirds of all students in the rural villages and urban slums they visited are enrolled in independent fee-charging schools – despite the fact that free government schools are generally available.

But are these families choosing wisely?

In the U.S., every high-quality experimental study of school voucher and private scholarship programs has found that private school students perform at least as well as, and usually better than, control groups of similar students who remain in public schools. But critics have rightly pointed out that these are small programs. If, as the critics allege, these programs enroll an unusually motivated subset of families, their positive results might not carry over to the population as a whole.

Enter, once again, Tooley and Dixon.

On tests of mathematics and language, the researchers found that private school students consistently outperformed their government school peers, even after controlling for differences in student characteristics that might affect educational achievement.

Not only are these poor families in Africa and India willing and able to choose schools for their children, they are making better decisions for their own children than state-appointed experts are making on their behalf.

The fact that private schools have arisen in large numbers to serve the Third World poor also dispels the myth that they are all elitist institutions catering only to wealthy, high-achieving students. The same is true closer to home. In a forthcoming study of my own, I find that nearly half of all private schools in Arizona are not academically selective at all, and that those that do consider student achievement in their admissions process do not usually rank it among their top-five criteria.

All of this would of course be irrelevant if we couldn’t afford to make independent schools universally accessible. But on this point, too, the domestic and international evidence agree: Tooley and Dixon report that the private schools they studied spend far less than their public sector counterparts, a pattern that also holds in this country.

There is a difference, however, between knowing that a free educational marketplace is desirable and knowing how to provide universal access to one. Here again, it is helpful to consider Arizona, which lets citizens take a dollar off their tax bill for every dollar they donate to a private k-12 scholarship organization (up to $500 per person). Those organizations, in turn, help families pay independent school tuition.

By creating a larger scale version of the Arizona program, along with personal-use tax credits for parents’ own educational costs, Texas would quickly become host to the largest, most dynamic educational marketplace in the nation. And in doing so, it would not be spending a dime of government funds, bypassing church/state issues that often dog government-funded voucher programs.

It is, in other words, entirely feasible for Texans to bring high-quality independent schools within reach of every Lone Star citizen, empowering all parents, including the most disadvantaged, to take back control of their children’s education.

If parents can choose wisely for their children in Kibera, Kenya, and Hyderabad, India, why not in Dallas and Houston?

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.