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February 01, 2012
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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.
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.
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.