School choice in America

At last week's American Enterprise Institute-Fordham conference on the No Child Left Behind Act's "remedies" for low-performing schools, paper after paper reported how little use is being made of that law's "public school choice" option for kids whose present schools have been rated "in need of improvement." A galaxy of snafus, late data, inadequate capacity, constrained choices, bad information, and perverse incentives has made this remedy one of NCLB's least used and least effective--and that's saying something.

Milton Friedman wouldn't have been surprised. He would have said that's the sort of thing that happens when government tries to control markets. Still, it's a big disappointment on multiple fronts. NCLB's authors correctly understood that children stuck in persistently failing schools should be able to leave them for better schools. They sought to craft such an exit visa. But we now know they set it up in such a way that it's accomplishing very little and amounts to an unkept promise.       

Yet several of the same papers also reported that large amounts of school choice are occurring under a host of other programs and policies, particularly in urban areas, including many of the same cities that NCLB has shown to have scads of schools worth fleeing (see here, here, and here). We're talking 20 to 30 percent of the kids in major cities, where they are making extensive use of intra- and inter-district choice programs authorized by state or local policy; charter schools; and private schools, access to which is publicly assisted in some places and for some categories of children. Such programs now benefit far more kids than NCLB-mandated choice.

These findings are underscored by a valuable new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in the Use of School Choice 1993 to 2003, released last month (though foreshadowed in the 2006 Condition of Education report). It's flawed in some ways, but it also offers a trove of information on the extent to which American families are already exercising school choice--and how that pattern has intensified as more options have become available.          

The traditional way of measuring school choice was to show the fraction of all kids attending charter or private schools, or being home schooled, versus those enrolled in district-operated public schools. That generally yields a figure in the vicinity of 15 percent nationwide.          

A more interesting, fruitful, and comprehensive approach, employed by NCES in the "National Household Education Surveys Program," is to ask families such questions as whether their child is attending an assigned school or a school of choice; are they aware of choices available to them; did they consider other schools; is their child in their first-choice school; did they move to their present neighborhood because of the schools; and how satisfied are they with their child's schools.            

Presented this way, the data show a very different pattern. In 2003 (the latest), 74 percent of U.S. school kids in grades 1-12 attended "assigned public schools"-down from 80 percent a decade earlier. The other 26 percent were enrolled in public and private schools that their parents acknowledged having chosen. Ten percent were in private schools, and 15 percent attended "chosen" public schools. (For various reasons the numbers don't quite add.)            

You may not be bowled over by a 6 percent shift from assigned schools to schools of choice over the course of ten years, but that's some 3 million more kids. Moreover, it's not the end of the story. A whopping 28 percent of kids attending "assigned" public schools have parents who say they moved to their current neighborhood because of the schools. And a quarter of kids in "assigned" schools have parents who said they considered other schools. This suggests that a lot of children who wind up in "assigned" district public schools, which in most cases are their neighborhood schools, are actually there as a result of exercising choice via the very important act of a family selecting its residence because of the schools there.           

It's risky simply to add up these numbers, but it looks to me as if about half of U.S. kids are enrolled in schools as a result of choices made by their parents.           

That's a very big deal indeed. This glass may actually be half full.           

Are these opportunities equitably distributed? Of course not, but the gaps are less dramatic than you might suppose.

Yes, white families and wealthy families are more apt to send their kids to private schools and to move homes in pursuit of particular public schools than are black and poor families. Yet black families are more apt to send their kids to a "chosen" public school. In 2003, that was the case with 24 percent of African-American school kids versus 13 percent of whites. (Hispanics were at 15 percent.)           

Poor families, too, are making reasonably decent use of public-school choice: 18 percent of those below the poverty line and 17 percent of the near-poor, versus 14 percent of kids from more prosperous families.            

No, it's not a sea change, and there remain far too many children and families with no choices or without the means of exploiting them. The choice glass is still half empty. Indeed, half of all parents responding to the 2003 NCES survey were unaware of any available public-school choices (and this awareness was nearly uniform across races, income levels, and levels of parental education). Perhaps they had choices that they didn't know about. Still, choice is playing little or no role in the education of tens of millions of American school kids.

We need to worry about those children, far too many of whom are attending bad schools and have no exit visas. That's why the various battles underway to widen (and improve) the choice options are worth fighting. That's why Monday's Supreme Court hearing was important--because it may lead to the removal of race-based impediments to the exercise of more choice.

Each year, NCLB identifies hundreds more schools "in need of improvement" than the year before. Then another set of "remedies" is supposed to kick in, intended to solve the problem by improving or eventually "restructuring" the schools. Alas, those elements of NCLB also amount to little--another important finding of last week's conference papers. The result: millions of kids stuck in ineffective schools.

That's immoral. It's also educationally unjustifiable.

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