An Ostrich’s Review of the Research on School Choice

The overwhelming conclusion of the best research on school choice is that students who receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice perform as well or better on achievement tests on average and are more likely to graduate high school and go to college. The positive effects are particularly found among low-income and minority populations that are presently the most choice deprived.

The only way opponents of school choice get around this inconvenient truth is by ignoring it, which they do with great persistence. They are frequently aided in their willful ignorance by dubious “reports” that claim to evaluate the evidence while inexplicably leaving out numerous gold standard studies by researchers at top universities. The latest such “report” comes from the Center for Public Education, which Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis methodically exposed over at the Show-Me Institute’s blog

Recently, the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association, released a report on the merits of school choice. The paper claims to summarize “what the research says.” Interestingly, the report fails to include almost every analysis that has found benefits to private school choice programs.

When Anna Egalite, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and human development at North Carolina State University, conducted a systematic review of the competitive effects of private school choice programs, she found 21 studies. She concluded that the results “unanimously find positive impacts on student achievement. Such overwhelming evidence supports the development of market-based schooling policies as a means to increase student achievement in traditional public schools.” Interestingly, the Center for Public Education did not cite any of these studies.

Similarly, there have been 12 random-assignment studies of voucher programs. These are considered the “gold-standard” in social science research because they are the best at determining causality. Eleven of the 12 studies have found positive effects from voucher programs. The Center for Public Education review only cites one of these studies.

The report cites plenty of useful statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources, but does not even attempt to cite the plethora of useful research on school choice programs.

Nevertheless, the report does get at least one thing right—private school choice tends to boost graduation rates.  This was highlighted in the evaluation of the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which showed a 21 percentage point increase in the graduation rate for voucher users.

Not surprisingly, given that they neglect to cite any of the ample evidence showing that school choice succeeds, the Center’s conclusion is that “In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools.”

The Center for Public Education does not explain what criteria it used to determine which studies to include in its supposed review of the research on school choice. Hopefully they will respond to Prof. Shuls’ critique by issuing a revised report that is more transparent and thorough–but don’t hold your breath.