Fears Versus Facts About School Choice

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Fears versus facts about school choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public education

By John Garen, Ph.D.

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Executive Summary


The public displays deepening concerns about public schools regarding their lack of improvement, despite increased spending and other legislative initiatives. There is good reason for these concerns.

The historical experience in the United States shows an unfortunate paradox: decades of increased spending on public schools with little improvement in performance. Per-pupil spending nearly doubled in the United States from 1970 to 2000 while reading and mathematics competence did not improve.

Kentucky fares no better. Kentucky’s efforts to improve public schools revolve around the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). The first six years (1990-1996) after KERA’s passage saw a 30-percent increase in per-pupil funding. However, Kentucky students’ academic performance compared to the rest of the nation showed little, if any, improvement during this time period.

Still, 18 years after its passage, KERA still has not fulfilled its promise. Federally administered testing shows Kentucky students with low proficiency rates for reading and math. The reliability of our own CATS testing system is increasingly doubted, with a widening gap between what CATS and federal testing deem proficient and recent test-grade auditing indicating inflated scores. Despite all of these problems with state-directed reform, the Kentucky Legislature continues to propose laws that attempt to micromanage schools from Frankfort.

Fortunately, good policy options known as school-choice programs are available and have been adopted in many other states. Most families send their children to schools assigned by neighborhood. “Choice” in Kentucky currently involves changing residence, a cumbersome and expensive way to create options. School-choice programs – charter schools and voucher programs – offer ways to expand choice.

Charter schools are independently run public schools “chartered” by school districts or another legally approved entity such as a college or university. Voucher programs allow awarding each family a dollar amount used for tuition at a private or public school. In both cases, money follows the student and schools succeed only if they can attract and retain enough satisfied parents. Many public schools do not have this incentive because their money and student body are nearly guaranteed – regardless of performance.

Choice programs create competition and market-like incentives that have proven very effective and are relied on for many goods and services. Yet, education leaders and lawmakers regrettably balk at harnessing these principles for the provision of schooling.

The introduction of school-choice programs is especially important because the traditional form of school choice for families has long been in decline. Traditional forms of choice refer to having a multitude of independently-financed school districts among which a family can choose. Both the number and financial independence of school districts has fallen substantially over time.

School-choice programs can restore the salubrious effects of competition. There remain, however, many unfounded fears about school choice. Charter schools do not “skim the cream” but enroll a diverse student population. They induce better performance from nearby traditional public schools while providing schooling services in response to parents’ unique demands. Finally, charter schools and vouchers perform well regarding student outcomes. Outside Kentucky, charter schools and voucher systems have become increasingly common and represent good policies opportunities for Kentucky.

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