Parent Choice versus Attendance Area Assignment to Schools: Does Magnet-Based School Choice Affect NAEP Scores?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Inter- and intra-district public school choice, vouchers, tuition tax credits and other forms of school choice have been advocated for decades, in large part on grounds that the market forces engendered will improve public education. There are many studies of school choice policies and programs and a large theoretical literature on school choice, but thus far no studies have used a large national sample and common metric to perform a multi-level, multi-district analysis of relationships between school choice policy and student achievement. This study links a national sample of NAEP student achievement data, with district level information on magnet-based school choice policy, and with demographic data from the U.S. Census. Using three-level hierarchical linear modeling we find substantial effects of school and district demographic variables on student achievement, but, after adjusting for multi-level demographic characteristics, we find only small differences in student achievement in school districts with magnet schools and school choice policies as compared with districts with attendance area based student assignment, and no magnet schools. NAEP achievement scores are marginally lower in the sample of students within districts reporting magnet schools and associated school choice policies.

Introduction

School choice in a variety of forms has expanded nationally and internationally, in large part on the belief that market forces can improve public education (Peterson 2001; Teelken, 1999; Van Zanten, 1996; Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998). In the United States, magnet schools were the first school choice policy widely implemented in public education (Blank, Dentler, Baltzell & Chabotar, 1983; Levine & Havighurst, 1977). Researchers have studied magnet schools to learn whether this approach to school choice affects achievement, but in almost all cases studies have focused on just a single or a few districts. This study merges existing national data sets to perform a multi-level, multi-district analysis. It charts new ground by linking student achievement data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) with district level policy information on school choice and demographic data from the U.S. Census.

Of the many different forms of school choice in existence (or proposed), magnet schools implement a regulated form of school choice--neither private schools nor charter schools are involved, and parents' choices may be restricted in the interests of racial desegregation of schools. Nonetheless, the presence of magnet schools in a district still produces a great deal of parental choice, raising questions about whether school districts with magnet-based school choice might have higher achievement than districts lacking school choice. This is the question we examine.

Theory and Research on Magnet Schools, School Choice, and Student Achievement

The Growth of Magnet Schools and School Choice

While charter schools and voucher programs have been getting more attention recently, magnet schools remain one of the most common approaches in the U.S. (CER, 1998; Steel & Levine, 1994). The "magnet school boom" (Warren, 1978) of the late 70s and continuing into the 80s was the precursor of the widespread adoption of public school choice policies we see today. Since 1976 when only 14 districts had magnet schools (Blank, Dentler, Baltzell & Chabotar, 1983), the number of districts with magnet schools has grown rapidly along with enrollment in magnet schools (Blank, 1989). By 1990 estimates were that almost half of urban districts had magnet schools (Steel & Levine, 1994).

When a district implements a magnet-based school choice policy, it designates a portion of the schools in the district as magnet schools. Magnet schools are open to enrollment by choice on a district-wide basis, subject to racial balance guidelines (sometimes regions within districts are used if the district is geographically large). …

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