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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Research Link / School Choice and Lessons Learned

Giving public school students the choice of which schools they attend is rapidly gaining popularity across the United States. A recent government survey (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2000) disclosed that in 1999, a higher percentage of students than ever before were enrolled in public schools that their parents had selected. Further, the parents who chose their children's schools were more likely to be very satisfied with their new schools than were the parents of children attending traditionally assigned schools.
What is the promise of choice, and why has it become such a popular alternative? In theory, school choice should serve two major roles. First, it should be a vehicle for educational equity: It gives parents with limited incomes the same opportunity to select a school available to wealthier parents. Second, it should encourage a competitive market that forces schools to improve their offerings and become more attractive to education consumers. But how successful has the choice movement been in promoting these lofty goals? What have we learned thus far?

Choosing Vouchers or Charters

Froese-Germain (1998) found that rather than leveling the economic playing field, choice programs may increase the separation of students by race, social class, and cultural background. In addition, competitive school choice environments do not necessarily improve student learning. When schools have to compete for students, they tend to play it safe and take the conservative, conventional approach in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Froese-Germain looked at choice in general, but what does the research tell us about the two most popular choice concepts: vouchers and charter schools?
Researchers have extensively studied one voucher program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Witte (1998) showed that Milwaukee choice parents viewed the public schools that their students had previously attended much less favorably than the control group of similar parents and students who remained in the traditional public schools. Parental satisfaction did not translate into academic improvement, however. Witte foundno substantial difference in achievement over the life of the program between choice and (assigned) students. . . . There were no consistent differences between choice and (assigned) students in value-added achievement scores using any of the modeling approaches. (p. 241)
Vouchers are designed to give parents choice among existing schools; charter schools provide parents a new option. Charter schools are public schools that have been created under state law but are exempt from many local and state regulations in exchange for greater accountability for student performance. Manno and Finn (1998) conducted extensive research on the charter-school movement. Their research showed that three-fifths of students reported that their charter-school teachers are better than their previous schools' teachers. More than two-thirds of the parents said that their children's charter schools are better than their previous schools. In addition, the study reported that charter-school teachers felt empowered. Nearly all the teachers described a sense of personal fulfillment and professional reward associated with working in charter schools.
Geske, Davis, and Hingle (1997) concurred with some of Manno and Finn's findings. They concluded that many teachers working in charter schools reported a high degree of satisfaction. They also found, however, that charter schools do not differ that much from their public counterparts in offerings and accountability. Many charter schools, like public schools, must comply with certain state-mandated minimum standards. In addition, some charter schools are actually more expensive to operate than regular schools, and they have yet to demonstrate improved student performance.
Rofes (1998) analyzed 25 case studies to uncover what happens when a charter school opens in a community. He found that 14 of the districts showed no significant signs of losing financing to charter schools, and only five reported a significant loss. In addition, he found that most charter schools drew in students with a wide range of academic ability, not just the most talented, as many believe.
He also discovered that the presence of charter schools often had a significant impact on the morale of teachers in local school districts. Teachers in traditional public schools reported feeling added pressure to produce strong academic results, and many of these teachers perceived the opening of a charter school in a local area as "a slap in the face." A few of the traditional school personnel, however, described improved levels of morale within their schools because teachers realized that their offerings equaled or exceeded the offerings of the charter schools. Thus, Rofes found that the climates and cultures of nearby traditional public schools almost always changed when a new charter school came into the community, but these changes were not predictable.

Choice with Care

School choice, like most other reform initiatives, shows promise. The promise, however, comes wrapped in caution. Choice encourages innovation and promotes the direct involvement of families. Like all initiatives, however, we cannot view choice as a simplistic cure-all that obviates public and governmental responsibility for providing quality public schooling for all students. As Cookson and Shroff (1997) write in School Choice and Urban School Reform,there is a danger that choice will be promoted as a panacea and that once again bad public policy will deprive the poor of the opportunities of growth and mobility that are at the heart of the democratic process. (p. 42)

Cookson, P., Jr., & Shroff, S. (1997). School choice and urban school reform. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED 416 271)

Froese-Germain, B. (1998, Fall). What we know about school choice. Education Canada, 38(3), 22–25.

Geske, T., Davis, D., & Hingle, P. (1997) Charter schools: A viable public school choice option? Economics of Education Review, 16 (1), 15–23.

Manno, B. & Finn, C. (1998, Spring). Charter schools: Accomplishments and dilemmas. Teachers College Record, 99(3), 537–552.

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2000). The condition of education 2000 [Online]. Washington, DC: Author. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2000/coe2000/section4/indicator46.html

Rofes, E. (1998, April). How are school districts responding to charter laws and charter schools? Denver, CO: Educational Commission of the States.

Witte, J. (1998, Winter). The Milwaukee voucher experiment. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 20(4), 229–251.

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