In my last post I discussed how some people support school choice for their children, but do not support private school choice programs that would extend options to other children. From my focus groups with 35 parents in Saint Louis and Kansas City, I found four main objections to these programs. These reservations were not held by everyone, but each was stated by numerous participants in the study. Over the next few days, I am dedicating a post to each reservation. If we are to convince parents, and the public at large, that school choice is a viable method for delivering on the promise of public education, we have to address these important issues.
Reservation number 1: School choice may hurt traditional public schools.
As I wrote in the paper, “Some worried that school choice programs may drain intellectual and financial resources from the low-performing schools. It is possible, they argued, that only families with the wherewithal to take advantage of the program would be able to access the choice schools. This would leave traditional district schools with the most difficult students to educate.”
This argument has been popular among opponents of school choice for a long time, so it was not surprising that it was also mentioned by parents. There was, however, some nuance to this reservation. Some parents worried about finances, others about students left behind, and still others about the impact on the local community. I’ll briefly deal with each of these issues.
Does school choice hurt school districts financially?
Let me tell you a little secret. Any time a student leaves a district, the district receives less money.
When a student moves to another public school district, the home district receives less money. When a student leaves to attend a charter school, the home district loses money. When a student uses a voucher to attend a private school, the home district loses money.
But it is also true that when a student leaves a district, that district has one fewer student to educate. What’s more, because most school choice programs actually allow fewer dollars to follow the student than would otherwise be spent on him or her, most school choice programs leave money behind in the district. As a result, per-pupil spending in the district goes up.
School choice doesn’t hurt school districts any more than families moving does, and we wouldn’t dream of banning people from moving. Why should we prevent them from finding a better schooling option for their child?
Does school choice hurt students who are left behind?
A substantial amount of research has been conducted to answer this question. As EdChoice states:
Thirty-one empirical studies (including all methods) have examined private school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Within that body of research, 29 studies find that choice improved the performance of nearby public schools…To date, no empirical study has found that school choice harms students in public schools.
It is perfectly reasonable to be concerned about disadvantaged students who may not participate in choice programs. We should look for every opportunity to help and support those students. The evidence, however, tells us that these students are not worse off; they are typically better off in a school-choice environment.
Does school choice hurt the community?
One thing is clear: Bad schools hurt a community. When students are forced to attend a low-performing school, more advantaged peers tend to leave. The quality of the school drops lower and housing values are depressed. School choice changes this. It makes it possible for families to stay in their communities and send their children to schools that meet their needs.
So what do we make of this reservation? As it turns out, we can put our minds at ease. Rather than harm academic, school, and community outcomes, school choice programs can have a positive impact on each.