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What research says about school choice

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Video: Students at UNO Charter School Network Put Civic Education into Practice

Over at Education Week, nine scholars and analysts–including Rick Hess (AEI), Kenneth Campbell (Black Alliance for Educational Options), and Jay P. Greene (University of Arkansas)–have signed on to an essay looking at the state of school choice in America today and where research should go from here. They write that “following 20 years of heated debate, new [school choice] programs reflect a growing sophistication regarding the design and implementation of school choice policies. It is time for claims and counterclaims about school choice to show similar maturation.”

After summarizing the findings of current research, the authors turn to the future:

The most important limitation on all of this evidence is that it only studies the programs we now have; it does not study the programs that we could have some day. Existing school choice programs are severely limited, providing educational options only to a targeted population of students, and those available options are highly constrained.

These limitations need to be taken seriously if policymakers wish to consider how these studies might inform their deliberations. The impact of current school choice programs does not exhaust the potential of school choice.

On the other hand, the goal of school choice should be not simply to move students from existing public schools into existing private schools, but to facilitate the emergence of new school entrants; i.e., entrepreneurs creating more effective solutions to educational challenges. This requires better-designed choice policies and the alignment of many other factors—such as human capital, private funding, and consumer-information sources—that extend beyond public policy. Public policy by itself will not fulfill the full potential of school choice.

Moreover, there is an urgent need for the research community to broaden the scope of its work. We need to develop rigorous ways of studying other outcomes that parents desire from schools. These include everything from character traits to content mastery to broader life outcomes. Equally deserving of exploration is the larger social impact of school choice, including its effects on economic structures beyond schools, or the distribution of political capital and influence.

We would add that one such desired outcome is in the area of civic education. As Robin Lake and the Program on American Citizenship’s  Cheryl Miller pointed out in their January report, Strengthening the Civic Mission of Charter Schools, “Charter schools provide an intriguing opportunity to rethink the role of public schools in preparing students to become informed and engaged participants in the American political system…Charter schools that have made citizenship their core mission need to be studied, examined, and emulated–just as we do for successful practices and pedagogy in reading math…There is scant research now on civics in general and almost none on outcomes such as civic values, skills, and knowledge in charter schools.” Read their full report here.