Roberts fears allowing “virtually any parent” to “siphon money” away from district schools to customize their child’s education would effectively “dismantle traditional public education.” Her concern raises three valuable questions more states and communities should be discussing:
Question #1: Should public education support schools or students?
It’s the opinion of this and other school choice supporters that public education exists to fund the best possible education for every child, whether that’s at a district school, private school, parochial school, home school, or other service provider. And the evidence shows that model benefits students.
The conclusion of 13 out of 14 randomized controlled trials—the gold standard for social science research—is that school choice programs raise participating students’ academic performance, and increase their likelihood of graduating high school and enrolling in and graduating from college. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.
It should come as no surprise such families are more satisfied when they can choose the options that work best for them—especially when they can completely design their child’s education, which ESAs allow.
In 2013, Jonathan Butcher and I conducted a survey of Arizona parents who were using ESAs to customize the educational experiences for their children with special needs. Whereas only 43 percent of the parents were satisfied with the district school to which their child had been assigned, an astounding 100 percent were satisfied with the education their child was getting with the ESA.
That said, Roberts has a legitimate concern about the potential impact educational choice laws have on the students who remain at their assigned district schools. It’s great if choice students benefit, but do their enrollment decisions harm others?
Question #2: Does school choice harm district schools?
One oft-repeated concern about school choice is that—in the lexicon of the great developmental economist Albert O. Hirschman—granting families an “exit” option would come at the expense of using their “voice” to improve those schools. If the families who care most about education were also those who are most likely to avail themselves of school choice options, then the district schools would be left with the families who were generally less educated and less demanding. The remaining families would therefore be less likely to provide the critical feedback necessary to address problems and improve the school.
This is an empirically testable hypothesis. Fortunately there have been 23 empirical studies investigating the impact of school choice laws on the students at district schools. Of those, 22 found that the performance of students at district schools improved after a school choice law was enacted. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found any harm.
District schools often operate as monopolies, particularly those serving low-income populations that have no other financially viable options. And sadly, a monopoly has little incentive to be responsive to the needs of its captive audience. Thankfully, the evidence suggests that when those families are empowered to “vote with their feet,” the district schools become more responsive to their needs, and student performance improves.
In other words, the exit option appears to enhance the voice of parents at their child’s assigned school. As Hirschman himself realized later in his life, “opening up of previously unavailable opportunities of choice or exit may generate feelings of empowerment in parents, who as a result may be more ready than before to participate in school affairs and to speak out.” Parental concerns carry more weight when the district school knows that those parents have the ability to send their children somewhere else—along with the money allocated for that child.
That leads us to the final question states and communities should address:
Question #3: Do resources alone determine a school’s effectiveness?
Schools obviously require resources to operate, but there's no strong correlation between resources and results. If resources were what drove performance, then at about $30,000 per pupil, Washington, D.C.’s district schools would be among the best in the nation instead of the worst (though they have made significant gains since the advent of school choice laws in the city).
In 2012, education policy experts Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, Paul Peterson of Harvard University, and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich released a report on international and state trends in student achievement. They found that “Just about as many high-spending states showed relatively small gains as showed large ones…. And many states defied the theory [that spending drives performance] by showing gains even when they did not commit much in the way of additional resources.” They concluded: