When economist Milton Friedman first proposed the idea of school choice in his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,” the Nobel Prize winner hypothesized that it would “ quicken the pace of progress ” in education. He was right—rigorous research proves as much.
We’ve witnessed massive expansions in education choice in recent years, thanks in part to the pandemic and parent dissatisfaction with radical public school curricula. Thirty-two states and Washington, D.C., now operate 76 private school choice programs. So, has choice quickened the pace of progress? What does the research say about the impact of choice on students across the country?
Scholars Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf recently reviewed the literature on the effect of school choice on a range of student outcomes and found that school choice has positive benefits on a host of measures.
Researchers have so far conducted 16 random assignment studies, the gold standard of empirical research, on the impact of education choice on student academic achievement. Of those 16, 10 studies found statistically significant positive effects for participating students. Just two found negative effects, which were unique to a heavily regulated program in Louisiana that has discouraged high-performing private schools from participating, and four found neutral effects.
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But the good news doesn’t stop there. Researchers have conducted five random assignment studies on the effect of school choice on academic attainment—that is, high school completion and college enrollment—on participating students. Three of these studies found increases in high school graduation rates and college enrollment, and two found null effects, for students enrolling in school choice programs such as vouchers and tax credit scholarships.
That same review looked at the studies examining the impact of school choice on student safety, identifying three random assignment studies, all of which revealed improved school safety outcomes as reported by either parents or students.
What’s more, DeAngelis and Wolf identified seven random assignment studies that examined the effect of school choice on character development. Three of those seven studies found education choice improved civic outcomes such as tolerance and charitable giving, while four found null effects. When expanding their analysis to all rigorous studies of character development, they found that seven of 12 studies reported positive effects.
Education choice, the umbrella term that encompasses vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts, improves student achievement and attainment, safety, and character development. But it also creates the necessary competitive pressure to improve outcomes for students who choose to stay in their district public school.
Greg Forster’s review of the literature on competitive effects looked at 33 empirical studies examining the impact of school choice on public school student academic achievement. His analysis revealed positive outcomes in 31 of those 33 studies.
And it does so for a fraction of the cost. Forster also found that 25 of the 28 studies examining the fiscal effect of education choice determined the policies saved money for taxpayers. No studies have found a negative impact on taxpayers, Foster reported .
How is this possible? What is it about education choice that makes it such a successful policy?
The positive benefits are a function of the improved incentive structure that education choice creates. Rather than assigning children to public schools in the district in which their parents can afford to buy a home, regardless of whether those schools are a good fit or align with families’ values, school choice puts public education funding directly in the hands of parents.
With an education savings account, for example, parents receive a portion of what would have been spent on their child in the public school. They can then use those funds to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, private tutors, and a host of other education-related services, products, and providers.
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That arrangement gets families much closer to what Friedman described as the best way to allocate resources. Friedman said there are four ways you can spend money . You can spend your own money on yourself, your own money on someone else, someone else’s money on yourself, or someone else’s money on somebody else.
District schools spend someone else’s money (taxpayer dollars) on somebody else (other people’s children as well as your own). Education savings accounts, by contrast, are much closer to spending your own money on yourself (your own children) and, as such, give parents the maximum incentive to economize and maximize value .
Research, economics, and, most importantly, the voices of families demonstrate that it is time to move away from ossified systems of funding school buildings and assigning children to them and toward options that directly fund families. Education choice does just that. And recent moves by leaders like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey show it’s possible to expand those options to every single child in a state.
The school choice movement has momentum on its side. This year, more families than ever before will be heading into the school year at the learning environment of their choice. That’s progress—but there’s still much more work to be done.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner