Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why school choice is succeeding

By Kevin P. Chavous

Michael Q. McShane wrote yesterday, “Why School Choice is Failing.” His thought provoking piece raised some very important points, but fails to illustrate how school choice is succeeding, the several solutions already in place to address his concerns, and how school choice advocates are laying the groundwork for even greater impact.

McShane’s issues boil down to three points: Filling excess capacity, encouraging high-quality schools to scale-up and creating new high-quality schools, the latter two McShane argues that school choice programs are “lousy at.”

The majority of us who are involved in the education reform movement are focused on advancing parental choice as central component of fundamental, meaningful, and impactful reform to provide children with better options that generate better educational outcomes. It’s both smart policy and a matter of social justice. However, when a child moves from a public school to a private school through an educational choice program, and receives the same failed outcome, that is not a success. And, this is where McShane has it right.

Does this mean that school choice is failing? No. What it demonstrates is the importance of high-quality bill design. This includes adequate scholarship amounts to encourage high-performing private schools to participate and new private schools to emerge, and reasonable accountability measures to ensure participating children are making academic progress.

While many private schools, especially Catholic schools, have a long history of successfully educating children for a lot less money than traditional public schools, we know for a fact that existing high-quality private schools are unlikely to expand and entrepreneurs are unlikely to start new schools without an adequate per pupil scholarship amount.

While McShane pointed to three areas where he says school choice is failing, what about the data showing the successes of school choice? Milwaukee has had some challenges, but today the Milwaukee voucher students graduate at rate 12 percent higher than their peers who attend Milwaukee Public Schools. The same is true with the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has a 97 percent graduation rate and 91 percent of the program’s graduates enroll in college.Both statewide programs in Indiana and Louisiana include strong accountability measures. In Louisiana, some schools have even been removed from the program and may no longer enroll voucher students. Just two weeks ago, Gov. Pat McCrory signed North Carolina’s new statewide voucher program into law which also includes strong accountability measures.

The need for expanded parental choice remains urgent, and there is strong demand exists. If McShane and others want to improve outcomes for children who remain trapped in schools that have utterly failed them, then we must all join together to tear down the wall limiting these options by improving the market incentives and ensuring reasonable accountability measurements are in place.

All across the country, school choice programs with high-quality bill design and good accountability measures, including examining student progress and outcomes, are demonstrably successful. Greg Forster, Ph.D., reported in April that 12 empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 found that choice improves student outcomes.

We must also remember that children leaving public schools that have not worked for them are likely behind their peers, and academic improvement does not happen overnight.

As the nation’s leading educational choice organization, we are advancing and strengthening educational choice across the country. These efforts, in collaboration with our state and national allies, have led to dramatic expansions over the last three years including high-quality and accountable statewide programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and most recently in North Carolina.
Kevin Chavous is the executive counsel to the American Federation for Children, the nation’s leading educational choice organization.  Kevin is a Democrat and former member of the D.C. city council where he chaired the education committee.

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