School Choice Research: Will Evidence Ever Count?

Earlier this month, Mike Petrilli moderated a Fordham Institute discussion about whether charter schools had eclipsed private school vouchers as the most promising education reform.  One panelist extolled charters as offering an important “research and development” opportunity for public schools.  Implicit in that observation was the notion that there might be a connection between research findings and policy responses.  Such a connection would seem self-evident…until, that is, one looks at the actual record involving vouchers.

Two decades ago, when Wisconsin’s Legislature debated the proposed Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, opponents said there was no evidence that a voucher program would increase academic achievement.  Of course, as there were no sustained U.S. voucher programs to evaluate at the time, that narrow claim was correct.

Count me among those who thought that credible research, once conducted, would be acknowledged and reported in the media, and would thus influence the debate.  However, as it turns out, this hope reflected a stunning naiveté regarding educational research, academic politics, and journalism.

As for research, schools of education have been loath to explore, much less acknowledge, any potential benefit from a policy opposed by public schools and teacher unions.  Enterprising economists and political scientists largely have filled the vacuum.  A number of scholars, including some who risked not attaining tenure, have evaluated voucher programs and identified gains for students receiving expanded educational options.  Much of this research is summarized in this law review article by Patrick Wolf.  As noted in the article, many studies rely on rigorous, randomized treatment and control group comparisons.  In “Lost Opportunities,” published by Education Next last week, Wolf supplements this with important evidence from the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Acknowledging these studies, it is notable that the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice — a body affiliated with the National Education Association — has observed:   “Voucher studies, generally of high quality, indicate a slightly positive impact, particularly for African American students.”  (See the Center’s 2008 report on school choice here.)

In addition to academic gains for students in some voucher programs, other scholars have identified benefits among public schools as a result of such programs.  Still other researchers with national credentials report that low-income voucher students in Milwaukee graduate from high schools at higher rates than do public school students.

What of this has been communicated to the general public?  Not much. Mainstream education reporters — the general public’s principal source of information about such matters — are not well versed in social science research methodology.  Further, they spend considerable time on their beat in an echo chamber, interacting with public school officials and others who are skeptical about parental choice programs. These factors help explain why many in the news media minimize — and sometimes entirely ignore — the positive findings that have survived close academic scrutiny.  As a consequence, most newspaper readers simply are unaware of the research.

A particularly egregious illustration is the outdated and strikingly incomplete “A Reporter’s Guide To Privatization,” published in 2005 by the Education Writers of America (EWA). Its prejudicial tenor often apes the rhetoric of teachers unions and other opponents of education vouchers.

According to the report, “This guide is aimed at helping journalists better understand the emerging issues” associated with “privatization” of instruction.  To illustrate such “emerging issues,” the report lists “[s]afeguarding public money” and notes that “[b]illions of tax dollars will be spent on school privatization.”  Elsewhere it says (emphasis added), “School choice and privatization have been sold…as a way to force bureaucratic school systems to improve through competition.  Journalists must carefully track the effect on school districts.  Whether changes from competition force more efficient schools systems or create chaos is a key concern.

These and other introductory comments foreshadow the rest of the report.  For example, a list of resources says “good basic info and policy statements” on vouchers are available from the People for the American Way, a group that relies in part on teacher union financial support and that stridently opposes parental choice programs.

More distressingly, under “studies” about educational vouchers, a grand total of four entries are listed.  The list omits literally dozens of credible studies, many that have appeared in respected scholarly journals.  Notwithstanding such research, the EWA report flatly states, “There is (sic) little data on effectiveness.”  Yet in the same year the EWA guide was published, Gerard Robinson, then a senior fellow at Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, summarized 42 studies from more than a decade of research involving educational voucher programs.   The references cited by Robinson mainly involve peer-reviewed research, by recognized scholars, that had appeared in prestigious journals.

Earlier, respected scholars had reached conclusions similar to Robinson’s.

In 2001, Tom Loveless, then director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, wrote the following, based on then-existing research, in the Brown Center Report on American Education: “Although controversial, research generally shows positive effects for students using vouchers to attend private schools.”

In 2003, the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education issued a separate report (also through Brookings).  The Commission, chaired by Dr. Paul Hill of the University of Washington, carefully reviewed the research on the impact of school choice on student achievement and included in its report the following statement: “The most rigorous school choice evaluations that used random assignment…found that academic gains from vouchers were largely limited to the African-American students in their studies.”

So, twenty years after the enactment of Milwaukee’s program, a growing body of research shows that students receiving vouchers do as well and often better than their peers in public schools and at a fraction of the taxpayer cost.  Yet much conventional wisdom defines the results as “mixed.”  Compared to what?  What other K-12 educational policy has been subject to comparable randomized experiments?  What other policy has produced comparable gains for African American students at a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools?  What does the failure to acknowledge the school choice research say about the supposed commitment to close the education gap?

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