August 13, 2015 4:10PM

The School Choice Myth That Just Won’t Die

The myth that there's no evidence that school choice works has more lives than Dracula. Worse, it's often repeated by people who should know better, like the education wonks at Third Way or the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate education committee. In a particularly egregious recent example, a professor of educational leadership and the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education wrote an op-ed repeating the "no evidence" canard, among others:

The committee also expands the statewide voucher program. There is no evidence privatization [sic] results in better outcomes for kids. The result will be to pay the tuition for students who currently attend private school and who will continue to attend private school—their tuition will become the taxpayers’ bill rather than a private one. Additionally, the funds for the expansion would siphon an estimated $48 million away from public schools, decreasing the amount of money available for each and every school district in the state.

It is astounding that a professor and a dean at a school of education in Wisconsin would be unfamiliar with the research on the Milwaukee voucher program, never mind the numerous gold standard studies on school choice programs elsewhere. Fortunately, Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Martin Lueken of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty set the record straight:

...the Wisconsin Legislature commissioned a comprehensive five-year study by researchers at the University of Arkansas. The research team matched and compared children at private schools in the choice program to similar students at Milwaukee Public Schools. The study concluded that children in Milwaukee who used vouchers were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in four-year colleges and persist in college.

These findings are very similar to those of “gold-standard” studies done nationwide. Among 13 peer-reviewed studies on voucher programs that use research methods based on random assignment, all but one study concluded that vouchers benefit students (the other was unable to detect an impact). In addition, recent work by a Harvard economist demonstrates that giving low-income families better educational options can help improve social mobility for children.

Just a year and a half ago--in response to yet another school choice denier who should know better--the coauthors of the Milwaukee study clarified that their research found school choice produced "a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes."

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

Moreover, as Shuls and Lueken note, "private schools in the choice program obtain these results when the government funding for a voucher is 60 percent less than what public schools receive."

The final two claims by the UW-Madison faculty--that the voucher program benefits students who would attend private school anyway and siphons money from the district school system--also fail to withstand scrutiny. A conservative analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program by Prof. Robert Costrell of the University of Arkansas found that "about 10 percent of low-income voucher users would have attended private school anyway." The 2009 study also found that the voucher program produced significant savings to the state taxpayers, as shown in the figure below:

Taxpayer Savings from Milwaukee Voucher Program

Chart by Robert M. Costrell.

A Friedman Foundation study released last year found that the Milwaukee voucher program saved the state more than $238 million since its inception in 1990. Moreover, as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty notes in a recent report, Wisconsin gives a "school choice bonus" to district schools that lose students to the voucher program. Although a district's total revenue decreases when a student leaves (along with the variable costs associated with that student), the "school districts will actually have more revenue per pupil because the district can continue to count students it no longer educates for equalization aid and revenue limit purposes."

Sadly, opponents of school choice are likely to continue resurrecting the "no evidence" canard. But when they do, Van Helsings like Shuls and Lueken will be there to put a stake in its heart.

July 9, 2015 11:32AM

Sen. Murray and the “No Evidence for School Choice” Canard

There are many good reasons to oppose a federal school voucher program, but a supposed lack of evidence that school choice improves student outcomes isn't one of them. Sadly, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate's education committee, repeated this canard during the debates over a proposed amendment that would have added a federal school voucher program to the No Child Left Behind replacement bill:

What’s more, studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee and the District of Columbia have shown that they do not improve students’ academic achievements, she said. “Study after study has shown that vouchers do not pay off for students or taxpayers,” Murray said. 

That's simply not true. According to Dr. Patrick Wolf, coauthor of the only longitudinal study of the effect of Milwaukee's voucher program, “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

In the final year of the study, Milwaukee voucher students in grades 3-9 performed about 15 percent of a standard deviation higher on standardized reading tests, “a modest but meaningful educational difference.” Moreover, the study concluded that Milwaukee district-school students were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” And contrary to Sen. Murray's assertion that "vouchers do not pay off for taxpayers," the study found that the voucher program saved the state nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011 because the vouchers were worth about half of the cost per-pupil at the district schools.

Wolf also studied the effects of Washington, D.C.'s voucher program under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education. The study found that students offered vouchers graduated high school at a rate 12 percentage points higher than the control group, 82 percent to 70 percent respectively. In a follow-up study, Wolf and his team determined that the voucher program was a boon to taxpayers as well:

The District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) produced $2.62 in benefits for every dollar spent on it. In other words, the return on public investment for the private-school voucher program during its early years was 162 percent. 

In total, there have been a dozen random-assignment studies--the gold standard of social science research--by researchers at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, the Brookings Institution, and elsewhere examining the impact of private school choice programs. Of those, 11 found modest but statistically significant positive impacts on student performance, including improved test scores and higher rates of high school graduation and college enrollment. One found no statistically discernible difference and none found any harm. For Sen. Murray's benefit, here is a sampling:

• Joshua M. Cowen, “School Choice as a Latent Variable: Estimating ‘Complier Average Causal Effect’ of Vouchers in Charlotte,” Policy Studies Journal, May 2008. – After one year, voucher students had reading scores 8 percentile points higher than the control group and math scores 7 points higher.

• William G. Howell and Paul E. Peterson, The Education Gap: Vouchers and Urban Schools, Brookings Institution, 2002, revised 2006. – After two years, African-American voucher students had combined reading and math scores 6.5 percentile points higher than the control group.

• Jay P. Greene, “Vouchers in Charlotte,” Education Next, Summer 2001. – After one year, voucher students had combined reading and math scores 6 percentile points higher than the control group.

• Cecilia E. Rouse, “Private School Vouchers and Student Achievement: An Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1998. – After four years, voucher students had math scores 8 NCE points higher than the control group. NCE points are similar to percentile points.

In recent years, left-wing politicians and organizations have repeatedly closed their eyes and plugged their ears with regard to the copious evidence that school choice works. But ignoring the evidence doesn't make it go away.

June 29, 2015 4:02PM

Colorado Supreme Court Strikes Down School Vouchers

Earlier today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Douglas County's school voucher program violates the state constitution. 

The Douglas County Board of Education unanimously voted to enact the Choice Scholarship Pilot (CSP) Program in 2011, making it the first district-level school voucher program in the nation. The program granted 500 school vouchers worth up to 75 percent of the district schools' per-pupil revenue, which was approximately $6,100 in the last academic year. Students could use the $4,575 vouchers at the private school of their choice and the district retained the remaining 25 percent of the funding ($1,525 per voucher student).

However, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several local organizations that wanted to protect district schools from competition filed a legal challenge almost immediately. Although they won an injunction from a trial court, it was later overturned on appeal in 2013. Plaintiffs then appealed to the state supreme court.

In a narrow 4-3 decision*, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the voucher law ran afoul of the state constitution's historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which says:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever...

The court held that "aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does." Even though "CSP does not explicitly funnel money directly religious schools, instead providing financial aid to student," the court ruled that the Blaine Amendment's prohibitions "are not limited to direct funding."

The dissenting justices argued that the majority's "interpretation barring indirect funding is so broad that it would invalidate the use of public funds to build roads, bridges, and sidewalks adjacent to such schools." Rather, the dissent favored following state precedent that tracked with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), which held that a voucher program that was neutral with respect to religion and funded students directly was constitutional regardless of whether "the funds indirectly or incidentally benefit church or sectarian schools."

The Douglas County Board of Education has vowed to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court:

While we are disappointed in the court's decision today, we are not surprised," said Douglas County Board of Education president Kevin Larsen. " We have always believed that the ultimate legality of our Choice Scholarship Program would be decided by the federal courts under the United States Constitution. This could very well be simply a case of delayed gratification."

Although a state supreme court has the final word on how to interpret its state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court could rule that a provision of a state constitution (or a state court's interpretation of that provision) is itself unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution. In this case, defenders of the program believe the Blaine Amendment entails unconstitutional discrimination against religious schools. Though the Colorado Supreme Court held that "pervasively sectarian" schools must be excluded from public funding, the Institute for Justice points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has not only ruled that "pervasively sectarian" options may be included in an otherwise neutral student aid program, but it also "strongly suggest[ed] that excluding such options would itself be unconstitutional" in Mitchell v. Helms (1999):

[A] focus on whether a school is pervasively sectarian is not only unnecessary but also offensive. . . . [T]he application of the ‘pervasively sectarian’ factor collides with our decisions that have prohibited governments from discriminating in the distribution of public benefits based upon religious status or sincerity. 

In addition, the dissenting justices in Colorado argued that the majority made "a more serious error" in refusing to consider whether the Blaine Amendment "is unenforceable due to possible anti-Catholic bias." While the majority held that it was sufficient that the "plain language" of the provision is not biased, the dissenters note that they "the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that allegations of such animus must be considered, even where the 'plain language' does not invoke religion." 

It is likely that litigation over the DougCo voucher law will continue for quite some time. For now, the Douglas County Board of Education should consider an alternative means to expand educational choice that rests on much firmer constitutional ground: a scholarship tax credit law.

To learn more about why scholarship tax credit laws withstand constitutional scrutiny, watch this short film by the Cato Institute:

* Technically, the decision was a 3-1-3 split, with six justices holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law on statutory grounds, and three justices holding that the voucher law was unconstitutional on the merits, and one justice holding that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the law on statutory grounds and that the voucher law violated the statute in question. Throughout this post I've referred to "the majority" with regard to the merits, though only a plurality actually held that the law was unconstitutional.

March 20, 2015 4:06PM

National School Choice Proposal Heartening, Frightening

According to the American Federation for Children, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) have reintroduced "the Educational Opportunities Act, which would create an individual and corporate tax credit for donations that pay for scholarships for students to attend a private school of their parents’ choice."

It is encouraging to see growing support for scholarship tax credit school choice programs, which have been found to simultaneously boost achievement for students who switch to private schools, do the same for students who remain in public schools, and save taxpayers millions of dollars every year--a win-win-win scenario. Nevertheless, it is ill advised to pursue such a program (or other school choice programs) at the federal level.

Years ago I summarized those problems when President George W. Bush advocated creating a federal school voucher program. Such programs are not only beyond the mandate accorded to Congress by the Constitution, they bear the risk of suffocating private schools nationwide with a raft of new regulation, defeating their very purpose of increasing the range of educational options available to families with limited means.

In the past few years I have visited Sweden and Chile and studied their federal school chioce programs. Both confirm my earlier worries about national programs. Chile's entrepreneurial voucher schools grew rapidly at first, but with a recent change of government hostile to the program they have sensed the new climate and stopped expanding.The new government is trying to enact regulations to diminish the scope and freedom of private schooling in Chile.

Meanwhile, something similar is happening in Sweden. Among other things, the government has mandated that all schools hire graduates of government-certified teacher training programs, despite the well known fact that those programs are currently attracting the lowest-achieving college students.

National school choice programs have proven to be a prime case of "staff car legislating." The legislators who enact them are not always the ones in the official staff cars, making the rules. New lawmakers with different preferences ultimately come to power and can wreak havok on a nation's entire K-12 education sector.

This problem can be minimized by leaving school choice legislation to the state level, where the Constitution rightfully leaves it. We thus have a "laboratory of federalism"--a variety of different policies across states that make it easier to determine how best to design such programs.

September 22, 2014 8:50AM

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students' falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday's Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don't support that narrative. Here's the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

July 25, 2014 10:13AM

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden's voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

The same result can be seen in the for-profit Korean after-school tutoring market, which has complete autonomy over admissions and in which admission is hardly ever selective. Tutoring firms administer tests to their applicants, but they use those tests merely to identify the right classes for them, not to determine admission. When left to themselves, education markets do not focus exclusively on high performing students, well-behaved students, or indeed on any single subgroup of students. They respond to market demand.

What makes the “cherry-picking” criticism of Swedish schools even more strange is that the government actually requires high schools to accept students based on their elementary school grades. Thus, again, to the extent there is a systematic problem in this area, it is actually caused by the state, not by the schools.

Next Sanandaji acknowledges that a poorly managed for-profit school chain went bankrupt, closed down, and its students had to find new schools. Perhaps I misunderstand him, but he seems to present this as an example of market failure, adding that “some of this abuse has been stopped [by tighter regulation].” It is hard to reconcile this characterization with Sanandaji’s otherwise sound exposition of how markets work. The failure and exit of poorly managed businesses is not a bug in the software of capitalism, it is a feature. No economic system guarantees that all service providers are effective and efficient in perpetuity.

The same applies to systems of education. Having studied school systems around the world and across time back to Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C., I have never come across one that achieved perfection. The best that an education system can do is to provide incentives for effective and efficient operation, and to reliably force the exit of schools that fail to respond to those incentives.

So, in Sweden, a large, ill-managed school network went out of business in a few years, and its students are now enrolled in other schools that are at least well-enough managed to still be operating. Contrast this with how failure is dealt with in a system with many layers of government oversight and ostensible quality control: U.S. public schooling. In most of the nation’s big cities, performance has generally been regarded as ranging from mediocre to abysmal for at least several generations, despite high and rising real per-pupil spending. Schools and districts deemed “dropout factories” continue to operate indefinitely. This, it should be obvious, is an inferior way to deal with educational failure—allowing it to continue decade after decade, afflicting an endless stream of children, instead of bringing it summarily to a halt after just a few years.

But Sanandaji, in other contexts, understands all this. He can undoubtedly cite Schumpeter chapter-and-verse on the process of “creative destruction” that drives progress in free markets. It’s not clear why he doesn’t apply this knowledge here.

And lest readers assume that the above analysis is nothing more than economic theory, I encourage them to review the empirical research on within-country comparisons of different school systems. I surveyed that research for a 2009 paper and found that the least regulated, most market-like school systems—those in which parents pay at least some part of their own children’s tuition directly—are consistently the best at serving families’ needs across all outcomes that have been studied. In practice, in the real world, additional government “control” (i.e., regulation) of education markets is not associated with better outcomes. If anything, the reverse appears to be true.

Finally, Sanandaji reports poll results indicating that “Swedes have turned sour on for-profits’ running schools generally.” That people would offer this answer to pollsters is not at all surprising given the often confused and misleading media coverage of the subject. But, in talking to people in Sweden and Chile (another country with a national school choice program that allows for-profit schools), I’ve found that parents are often unaware which private schools are for-profit and which aren’t, and so cannot be placing much weight on that factor in choosing schools for their children. That is perhaps why two of the biggest school chains in Sweden, Kunskapsskolan and International English Schools (IES), are both operated for profit and both highly regarded. Indeed IES is perhaps the fastest growing chain in the country. Despite growing as fast as it is able, opening several new schools each year, it had a waiting list of 60,000 students as of last year. The minister of education himself sends one of his children to an IES school.

So while badly managed chains are failing, well-managed ones are growing. That is how markets work, and it is in the best long term interest of consumers.

All of the above said, there are certainly defects in the Swedish voucher program, centered on counterproductive regulations and the total reliance on third party government funding. I will be writing about those problems, but will have to leave that for another day.

February 25, 2014 9:01AM

Pounding the Table, Not the Facts, on School Choice

There's an old legal proverb about how to win a court case: "If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither is on your side, pound the table." In this factually-challenged attack on school choice, two lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights do a great deal of table pounding.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the lawyers charge that school choice programs don't work and that they increase racial segregation. For example, they claim: 

...in states with [school choice] programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures.

Even read in the most charitable light, the lawyers misleadingly compare apples and orangutans. Participants in school choice programs are generally more disadvantaged than the general population, so it is absurd to compare their average performance against the general population, which includes all the students in wealthy "public" school districts (where low-income parents have been arrested for trying to enroll their kids). Government school advocates rightly object when someone compares average private school performance to average government school performance. The private schools outperform government schools on average, but because both parents and the private schools select each other, the comparison breaks down. The same is true here.

A meaningful comparison requires a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold standard of social science research because the process of randomization allows researchers to compare like against like and to isolate the effect of the "treatment" (in this case, the offer of a school choice scholarship). Fortunately, there have been 12 such studies addressing this very question from highly-respected institutions like Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. Eleven found that school choice programs lead to positive student outcomes, including higher academic performance and higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact.



These studies include evaluations of the Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs that the lawyers falsely claimed were underperforming vis-a-vis government schools. In fact, a longitudinal study of the Milwaukee program found that it increased academic performance, graduation rates, and college enrollment (and did so at about half the cost per pupil):

“Students enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts, boast significantly improved reading scores, represent a more diverse cross-section of the city, and are improving the results of traditional public school students,” said the study’s press release.

“Among the new findings are that students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation—not only graduate from high school on time by seven percentage points more than students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college and persist in college.”

In other words, the lawyers' assertion that the achievement of school choice students is "is no better, and often worse" is flat out false. It's not possible to state with any certainty where they're getting their faulty information (quite possibly the usual suspects), but President Obama made similarly false claims in a recent TV interview, prompting prominent researchers including of Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas to correct the record:

The faulty empirical claims about the effectiveness of school choice programs were bad enough, but the lawyers' greater offense was cynically raising the specter of racial segregation:

We also know the historical links between racism and private schools. In 1964, 83 private schools enrolled approximately 9,500 students in N.C. But from 1968 to 1972 – when advocates and the federal government began to enforce meaningful school desegregation – the state jumped from 174 private schools and 18,000 students, to 263 schools and over 50,000 students. Surging enrollment in non-public schools was often concentrated in areas with high concentrations of African-American students , and the segregative legacy of these private schools and academies continues to this day:

Bertie County is 62 percent African American. Lawrence Academy was founded in Bertie County in 1968. Its student body is 98 percent white.

Halifax County is 53 percent African-American. Halifax Academy and Hobgood Academy were both founded in 1969. Halifax Academy is 98 percent white; Hobgood Academy is 95 percent white.

Hertford County is over 60 percent African-American. Ridgecroft School, founded in 1968, is 97 percent white.

Northampton County is 58 percent African-American, but Northeast Academy, established in 1966, is 99 percent white. 

First, it's absurd to link the history of segregation solely to private schools when the public schools were segregated for over a century. This is especially absurd since inter-district segregation is now higher among government schools than 50 years ago.

Second, these anecdotes tell us absolutely nothing without context. It's possible that these schools are illegally discriminating on the basis of race, but it's also possible that this merely reflects the fact that, under the status quo, wealthier whites are better able to afford private school than less wealthy blacks, which is exactly the inequity that NC's school voucher program seeks to address.

It's telling that the lawyers refrained from citing any of the empirical evidence on the matter:

Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.

Additionally, a recent study from the Louisiana Department of Education also found that the state's school voucher program improves racial integration. More than 85 percent of the scholarship recipients in Louisiana are black. Likewise, school choice programs in other states disproportionately benefit minority students, including 81 percent of scholarship students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 78 percent in Florida.

The lawyers concluded that it is "a twisted irony that the leaders of the voucher movement claim a racial justice rationale for their scheme." In fact, the twisted irony is that an organization with the words "civil rights" in their title would work so hard to deprive minorities of the ability to choose the schools that work best for their own kids. They're joined by other defenders of the government school monopoly who are suing to block North Carolina's nascent school choice program. If these self-proclaimed "civil rights" lawyers really cared about racial justice, they would stop standing in the school house door.