Yes, Marc Tucker, there IS evidence that choice is effective

Advocates for choice and competition in American education have for years encountered the straw-man argument that charters, vouchers, and the like are ineffective because standardized-test performance in these sectors is mostly indistinguishable from that in public schools (the reality is, of course, more nuanced, but more on that later). But Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy has taken a more extreme path: He has made the bogus claim that no evidence supports the theory that school choice has any merit at all.

The claim that choice and competition have produced no evidence of success is, at best, disingenuous.

In Tucker’s world, school choice and market-based incentives do nothing to raise student achievement or lower costs for public education—two of the most common claims of choice advocates. Moreover, he wrote in a post for the Education Week blog Top Performers, school choice has done little to close bad schools; parents tend to choose safe and comforting environments where they find responsive principals, he claims, not schools with records of high standardized test scores.

This not only is patronizing, it’s wrong. It’s true that parents don’t always choose schools in order to maximize their child’s achievement in the here and now, but enough research has shown that they generally want schools that push kids to succeed and go on to college. And this conviction has informed a lot of school choice research that has yielded the evidence Tucker said doesn’t exist.

Specifically:

  • Multiple studies of privately funded voucher programs, such as those in Charlotte, New York, and Dayton showed improved performance on standardized tests among voucher recipients. These gains were sizable particularly among disadvantaged black students. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas has found that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship led to improved reading achievement, and last year, Northwestern University economics professor David Figlio found that the gains among recipients of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship had begun to outpace those of students in public schools.
  • Harvard’s Martin West and University of Munich economics professor Ludgar Woessmann two years ago found that competition from the private sector enhances the achievement of students at private and public schools in countries where private education flourishes. This is important, as Tucker, who has examined education systems worldwide, argued that high student performance in any industrialized nation is in no way is attributable to choice and competition; the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson yesterday also reported that at least sixty-five other papers have documented positive effects of decentralized school systems internationally.
  • Closer to home, Northwestern’s Figlio two years ago found that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program modestly boosted the academic performance of the public schools faced with the threat of losing students to the program.
  • In 2011, researchers Kevin Booker, Tim Sass, Brian Gill, and Ron Zimmer found that charter schools were associated with a higher probability of successful high school completion and an increased likelihood of attending a two-year or four-year college.
  • And Pat Wolf at the University of Arkansas found that voucher students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in a four-year college. He found similar results in his analysis of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which increased a student’s chance of graduating high school by 21 percentage points.
  • Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas also has compiled a list of at least nine other random-assignment experiments (considered the gold-standard in research) that showed positive effects on participants in sundry school voucher programs.

But you get the point: Any claim that choice and competition have produced no evidence of effectiveness can, to borrow a phrase from Cato’s Coulson, be overturned by “a motivated 10-year-old using a second-rate search engine.”

And that’s a shame because Tucker is trying to raise some important points: Why do parents choose the schools they do? Do policymakers who favor school choice really have increased student achievement in mind, or are they satisfied with greater “customer satisfaction”? Do market-based reforms actually save taxpayers money? And, with a marketplace of schools, does the good drive out the bad?

Surely, politics has made closing bad schools –even bad charter schools –difficult, but that’s no reason to end publicly subsidized school choice. It means we need to give states and charter-school authorizers more tools, more support, and more incentives to shut down the failures and recruit the winners.

But above all, the claim that choice and competition have produced no evidence of success is, at best, disingenuous. The record, so easily accessible, shows otherwise.

More By Author

Related Articles