Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2005.1 (2005) 156-168
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[Article by Joseph P. Viteritti]
Comment by Herbert J. Walberg
In his thoughtful history of school choice, Joseph Viteritti offers persuasive moral arguments. My colleague Joseph Bast and I have made several related arguments: The American founders presented a compelling and more general case for individual rather than government choice over our personal and family affairs, and international surveys reveal that, in contrast to citizens elsewhere, Americans widely adhere to this view. In addition, school choice is inoffensive to, and even consistent with, core Catholic, Jewish, Moslem, and Protestant beliefs.43
Even so, pragmatists may find such arguments insufficiently convincing to justify a fundamental change in K-12 education policy. Therefore, I turn to empirical research on the effects of choice on educational outcomes reflecting the purposes of schooling. The research supports Viteritti's recommendation for a substantial expansion of choice for seven reasons, which are summarized in the following sections. [End Page 156]
Choice Schools Raise Achievement and Satisfy Parents
In a wide-ranging evaluation of the empirical literature on school choice, the political scientists Paul Teske and Mark Schneider examined such relatively privatized forms such as charters and vouchers within the public system.44 They rightly argue that no single study or investigator produces definitive conclusions. Efforts to synthesize the research have contributed most on topics for which economists, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, and education scholars usually read work specific to their particular disciplines rather than the entire corpus of relevant work; bringing the entire interdisciplinary corpus to bear can establish better founded conclusions. Moreover, although findings about the different effects of various forms and conditions of choice would be of use, conclusions that extend across many circumstances would have the most practical value, since their actionable implications are more generalizable.
According to Teske and Schneider, the best field studies indicate that choice improves performance. Although not all studies support this conclusion, no study has demonstrated that choice significantly impairs learning. Teske and Schneider conclude, moreover, that most of the parents surveyed made choices for academic reasons rather than on such grounds as athletics.
One specific form of choice, charter schools, have grown rapidly in response to parental preferences for them. Even so, most states limit the number of charter schools and tightly regulate them, and many eligible students must be turned away. Insufficient time has elapsed for many charters to finish their first five years. But, at the time of the present writing, the largest well-controlled evaluation yet undertaken of several hundred charter schools shows that despite start-up problems, elementary charter schools have produced achievement gains equivalent to those of conventional public schools, and the gains of secondary charters have surpassed those of conventional schools.45 These results are encouraging. State accountability systems, moreover, make school achievement failures more readily identifiable, which in principle should lead to state withdrawals of charters and parent withdrawals of their children from failing charter schools, leaving a prospering set of surviving charter schools.
Choice Benefits Regular Schools
The economists Clive R. Belfield and Henry M. Levin investigated the competitive effects on regular schools engendered by the presence of school [End Page 157] choice.46 Concentrating on urban and metropolitan locales, they examined, for example, the outcome effects of the degree of choice within geographical areas—for example, the existence of one large district as compared with many small districts within an area. They find choice beneficial to students in various geographical areas. Among the criteria evaluated are academic test scores, cost-efficient learning gains, graduation rates, adult wages, and real estate valuations.
Jay Greene's national survey corroborates the constructive effects of school choice.47 For each state that participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Greene formed an index of four factors: charter-school choice, subsidized private school choice, homeschooling choice, and public school choice. Within the index, the greatest degree of individual choice was found in Arizona, and the least in Hawaii, where only one school board served the entire state. In Greene's study, achievement...