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Studies Show School Choice Widens Inequality: Popular Among Parents, But Little Evidence that Children Learn More

School choice programs which allow parents to select the schools their children attend deepen educational inequality and fail to yield consistent learning gains, according to nine studies of choice initiatives coordinated by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Milwaukee this weekend.

The two-year long research project examined choice programs in Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Montgomery County, Maryland; African American and Hispanic families' views of choice plans; voucher initiatives in higher education and preschool settings; and the public and private school markets overseas.

The coordinators said in all the programs parents who opted for a "choice school" over a neighborhood school were better educated and supervised their children's schoolwork more closely, compared to parents who kept their children in the neighborhood school.

"School choice advocates place great faith in the market model, assuming that parents will be good shoppers and will move their children into higher quality, more responsive schools," said Bruce Fuller, codirector of the study. "But choice advocates need to recognize that many students are left behind in low-quality schools. Unregulated choice programs unfairly penalize children whose parents are not savvy educational consumers."

Few Achievement Gains

Researchers found little evidence that school choice programs actually boost student achievement. "Political enthusiasm and rhetorical claims about the virtues of school choice have far outpaced concrete evidence of merit," reported HGSE Professor and study codirector Richard Elmore in his summary of the studies. "Thousands of children have participated in Milwaukee's public-private voucher experiment over the past three years, yet we see no discernible gains in learning."

Milwaukee is especially significant nationally, according to Elmore, because it is the longest-running voucher experiment and is often cited as a model. This month the Wisconsin legislature is expected to expand Milwaukee's program, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich has urged Congress to use the Milwaukee program as a model to reform schools in Washington, D.C.

Only in San Antonio, Texas, did researchers find evidence of learning gains among students who left their neighborhood school to enter a "choice school." While students showed gains on achievement tests after one year in the choice program, researcher Valerie Martinez of the University of Texas found that their families also had stronger educational backgrounds than those not in the program. Thirty-two percent of San Antonio parents who chose a new school had attended college compared to 12 percent of non-choosing parents.

"The educational background of families has a far stronger correlation to student achievement than any equalizing effect from schools. San Antonio's choice programs clearly benefit the most motivated and relatively advantaged families," said Fuller, "These results suggest that school choice may inadvertently exacerbate stratification and inequality, as well as further isolate children who have the least support at home."

Choice Can Increase Racial Segregation

School choice also has the potential to further the re-segregation of public schools. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., created magnet schools as part of its school desegregation efforts in the late 1970s. Researchers found that many parents choose magnet schools on the basis of racial composition and cultural similarity. White parents tend to choose schools with higher white enrollment, while black parents select schools with higher black enrollment. Only by using their authority to deny transfer requests have school officials kept the choice process from increasing segregation.

Parental Support from Black and Hispanic Families

Despite the potential for segregation, researchers found parental support for choice programs, especially from minority and low income parents. In Milwaukee, for example, 59 percent of all participating parents are AFDC recipients, while these parents make up only 39 percent of the city's public school parents. Surveys conducted in Detroit and St. Louis showed that low-income black and Latino families were the strongest backers of choice plans. Voucher experiments in Milwaukee and San Antonio have boosted enrollment in small private schools that emphasize Afro-centric curricula or bilingual instruction. Waiting lists to enter the choice programs continue to grow, demonstrating strong support from these ethnic communities.

Implications for Policy Makers

According to Fuller and Elmore, policy makers need to take parental support for choice into account, along with the potential for segregation. "The politics of choice programs are heated and complicated," Fuller said. "We need to design choice plans where children benefit equally," he said. He pointed to additional findings from the school choice studies that could guide policy makers:

  • Schools with a distinct curricular focus can attract an integrated student body.
    In Montgomery County, language immersion and multicultural magnet schools are among the most popular, attracting a racially diverse population. But other schools without a clear identity draw few applicants and exhibit very little change in the pattern of racial segregation. Researcher Jeffrey Henig of George Washington University, also found vast differences in how much parents knew about magnet schools. Only 39 percent of all Latino parents were aware of the magnet school option, compared to 72 percent of Anglo parents.
  • Choice programs--if designed well--can boost parental involvement in and satisfaction with schools.
    In Milwaukee, parents participating in choice programs visited their child's school more and felt considerably better about their new schools, relative to parents who kept their child in the neighborhood public school. Choice schools are smaller and strongly committed to parental involvement in general.
  • In St. Louis, many inner-city youths retreat to their neighborhood schools after trying suburban schools.
    In St. Louis, UCLA professor Amy Wells found that some black youths who traveled to the white suburbs perceived these schools to be better--but later moved back to their neighborhood schools for reasons of cultural similarity, familiarity, or academic performance. Wells also found that many high school youths make their own decisions about where to attend school, not their parents.
  • Choice has been used successfully in other education settings.
    The largest voucher program ever funded--portable Pell grants for college students--has boosted access to community colleges, but has not increased the numbers of low-income students in four-year universities. Vouchers and tax credits have increased access to and improved the quality of U.S. preschools, according to Fuller. Unlike choice plans, however, most preschool aid is targeted to poor and working-poor parents and quality is regulated by state governments.

Complete Studies and Experts Available

The complete set of nine evaluations is being edited by Elmore, Fuller, and Harvard Professor Gary Orfield and will be published by Teachers College Press, Columbia University next year. The series was supported by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, Indiana.



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