The lessons of school choice

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Feb 21, 2006 12:05 AM
Choosing how your children are educated should be as routine in America as the ability to choose your neighborhood, your church, and your place of employment.

It stuns me that in 2006, the vast majority of students in failing schools are still trapped there. My husband and I have enjoyed the marvelous blessing of choosing freely between private schools, public schools and home schooling for our children. Yet, the reality for most parents is no real choice at all.

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002 by a large majority of Congress, was aimed at correcting the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” in President Bush’s memorable phrase. Academic achievement would be boosted by demanding accountability -- and educators would be held accountable by testing students regularly and measuring their progress. The parents of students in failing schools were supposed to have at least some choice to move to schools that perform.

Four years after NCLB was enacted, folks on both ends of the ideological spectrum are unhappy with the results and what it has failed to deliver. A bipartisan commission has been formed to figure out how to address the failings of NCLB before the legislation comes up for renewal next year.

It’s easy to see why liberals object to NCLB. One of their most diehard constituencies, teachers’ unions, reacts to the notion of accountability with fear and dread. How dare those know-nothing parents demand to know whether their children are learning! The nerve!

Still, there’s more to a good education law than testing and accountability (which are certainly needed). As conservatives have consistently noted, parents of all income levels should have more choices in where their children are educated. In a recent story for Family News in Focus, Heritage education expert Jennifer Marshall says policymakers need to return to promoting choice in education, which was part of NCLB’s original intent.

Yes, some choice is contained in NCLB: “But it’s important to remember that this was a very, very limited amount of choice and that this limited amount of choice has not been well implemented,” Marshall said. As the law ground through the legislative process, the amount and scope of choice it contained became significantly watered down.

The lack of choice is pathetic, considering how much increased choice can help students. A Heritage paper written by Krista Kafer and Heritage analyst Kirk Johnson at the same time NCLB was born, focused on a study by researchers at Harvard University, Mathematica Policy Research and the University of Wisconsin that shows how choice in education equals improved education. The three-year study of the correlation between voucher-like scholarships offered by the School Choice Scholarships Foundation and low-income student achievement in New York City revealed:

• Standardized reading and math test scores for black students who used the vouchers to attend private schools for three years were 9.2 percentile points higher than those of comparable black students who did not attend a private school.

• Overall test scores for black voucher recipients who attended a private school for at least one of the three years were, on average, 7.6 percentile points higher than those of black students who had never attended a private school.

• Parental satisfaction with their child's school was higher among parents of students who attended a school of choice. When asked to assign a grade to their children's school, 42 percent of voucher parents gave their school an "A," while only 10 percent of the parents of the control group public school students did likewise.

The benefits of school choice can be observed in other parts of the world, too. A chapter in the 2006 Index of Economic Freedom highlights how many poor parents in Lagos, Nigeria, make every sacrifice possible to send their children to private schools because of the public schools there are so deplorable. And it pays off: “In Lagos State, the mean math score advantage over government schools was about 15 and 19 percentage points, respectively, more in private registered and unregistered schools, while in English it was 23 and 30 percentage points more,” the Index notes.

And how does choosing to home school your children affect their education? Study after study (available on the website of the Home School Legal Defense Association) proves that home schooled students, as a whole, are better educated than their peers in public schools. Take math and reading: One comprehensive study revealed that while K-12 public-school students were scoring, on average, in the 50th percentile for both subjects, home schoolers were in the 82nd percentile for math and the 87th percentile for reading. Yet, the education “establishment” still strong arms our government into sending the cash their way instead of providing tax relief, vouchers or any real financial incentives to help make home schooling a reality for more families. It’s a disgrace that in 2006, our education system neither rewards nor even recognizes obvious success.

Children deserve the best education possible, and the way to make that happen is to empower parents to choose how their children will be educated. It’s essential to the future of our children and our country that we make school choice the centerpiece of a renewed No Child Left Behind Act.