Do Students Learn More Where Parents Have More Educational Choices?

Article excerpt

Educational freedom is sometimes accused of being an ideological term, so let me frame it in an analytic context. There have been several school choice experiments in the last few years.1 These experiments had a structure that yielded quality results because students were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. Some students by chance received scholarships to attend private schools and some students by chance did not receive those scholarships and had to return to the public schools. In five different cities in which these experiments have been conducted and in seven different evaluations of these experiments, significant effects in these programs have been discovered. It is now quite clear from this series of well-structured studies that students who are enabled to attend private school perform better academically and experience better outcomes in other dimensions than do students who don't have those same opportunities.

Finding that the students who are allowed to transfer fare better, however, does not address a central concern about such programs. It certainly is plausible that offering choices to families helps those people who receive them but not anyone else. Perhaps it even hurts other students. The constant refrain we hear in political circles is, what about those left behind? Thus the big question is what happens to the educational system as a whole when you introduce choice. Does a system in which parents have greater opportunities, greater choices in the education of their children, lead to better outcomes overall than that of systems where fewer opportunities are available to parents? The educational freedom index is one way to answer that question. I have collected data in five dimensions on the types of educational opportunities available in each of the fifty states. How much charter school choice is there in each state? How much subsidized private school choice-such as vouchers-is there? How much home schooling choice is there? And, how much inter-district public school choice is there? Lastly, how much choice is there in sending a child to another school district without changing residences? These five, different elements capture almost all of the types of choices that are available to parents. Each of these five components, in turn, is comprised of several measures. For example, in measuring charter school choice, I looked at the percentage of schools in each state that were charter schools, and I also looked at an index of the extent of the regulation imposed on charter schools or on similarly subsidized private schools. Private choice consisted of vouchers as one measure but also included a measure of direct subsidies to private schools. Believe it or not, thirty-seven states provide some form of direct assistance-transportation assistance, nursing care, books, the full range of subsidy assistance. Most home school choice was a measure of the extent of the regulation imposed on home schooling. Inter-district public school choice was actually a very unsatisfying measure, simply education reports as to whether states have inter-district school district choice, limited inter-district school choice, or no inter-district school choice so it's not a very discriminating measure. Lastly, choice through relocation was a measure of the number of school districts in the state per population. These five different measures are meant to be measures of the extent to which parents have choices in educating their children.

At the very top of the ranking is Arizona that has a very extensive array of charter schools-one quarter of all the schools in Arizona are charter schools although they educate about one-tenth of the population because the charter schools are smaller on average than the traditional public schools. Arizona also has an unlimited inter-district school choice program; little regulation of home schools; it has modest-sized school districts, and provides some direct subsidy of private schooling in the form of a tax credit. …