School Choice Is Working, After All
During the past few weeks, commentators across the country have reported that a conservative policy group issued a study finding that school choice is failing in Milwaukee. In this case, the old adage is correct: You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers.
The report in question, which was published by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, actually didn’t say anything at all, either positive or negative, about Milwaukee’s private school choice program. It only attempted to answer two questions about the city’s policy of open enrollment among its public schools: First, which factors do parents consider when deciding to send their children to one of the city’s public schools? Second, how involved are those parents in their children’s educations?
Even though there was an obvious way to answer these questions — conducting a survey of the parents — the author arrived at his conclusions with a roundabout method. He first collected public statistics about the race, ethnicity, living arrangements (one-parent or two-parent households), employment status, and educational attainment of Milwaukee’s public school parents, then matched those statistics to the findings of a national survey about demographic trends for parent and family involvement in education.
Given the number of single-parent, minority, under-educated, or disadvantaged families in Milwaukee, the author concluded that few of these parents were likely to choose a public school based on its academic reputation, or to actively participate in their children’s educations, and so the open-enrollment policy was unlikely to improve educational outcomes in Milwaukee’s public schools. The author reached this conclusion because he assumed that national demographic trends would hold true for Milwaukee parents, despite the city’s unique 18-year history with school choice. Because most disadvantaged parents nationwide have no experience with educational freedom, there is ample reason to believe that the Milwaukee parents’ educational decisions and academic involvement may deviate significantly from national norms.
As I have described, the Wisconsin report does not address the impact of private school choice on academic achievement. Contrary to some concerns voiced in the wake of the report, rigorous scholarly assessments during the past decade have repeatedly confirmed that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has improved educational outcomes for both students receiving scholarships and those remaining in the city’s public schools.
While the report’s questionable methodology casts doubt on its usefulness, it is also important to note that the author seems to miss a fundamental point about the value of school choice. He assumes that educational freedom is only important if parents’ choices are motivated primarily by academic concerns. In fact, many parents — across all demographic categories — would prefer schools providing safety, community, discipline, and values-based education over an academic powerhouse that lacks those other attributes. The power of choice is that families are given the opportunity to make decisions based on their own values, rather than the things that are important to academics or convenient for bureaucrats.
Dave Roland has litigated school choice issues in state and federal courts and has offered expert testimony on school choice programs before several state legislatures. He is an education policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.