For 13 years, I’ve been a researcher in the school choice movement, and from day one the most important part of the job has been mythbusting. Ask any other researcher in this field and he’ll say the same. There’s no other issue in American politics where one side has built its case so thoroughly upon untrue factual statements. It seems like no media story on this topic can get by without repeating these myths as facts. It never stops.
Here are a few of the more important myths, drawn from recent debates in Oklahoma:
(1) Research is mixed on the outcome of vouchers in other states. Think tanks supporting vouchers have found that they make a huge impact. Under scrutiny, the methodology of those reports usually falls apart.
—Rick Cobb, okeducationtruths
The research is not “mixed,” it is remarkably consistent. School choice is supported by a large body of high-quality empirical studies. A total of twelve studies have examined choice programs using random assignment – the gold standard method used in medical trials. Out of these 12 studies, 11 found that choice improved academic outcomes for participating students and one found no visible difference. And 22 of 23 studies, using a variety of methods, find that choice programs improve outcomes in affected public schools, while one found no visible difference.
No empirical study anywhere in the country has ever found that school choice had a negative effect on the academic outcomes of participants. No empirical study has found that it harmed public schools. If that’s a mixed result, I’d like to know what consistency would look like.
The bogus claim that findings are “mixed” originates from several sources. One is the differences between the studies in such secondary questions as the size of the positive effect or which students experience the positive effect. Also, the mere existence of a single study that found no visible effect is used to justify saying that the evidence is “mixed.” But the existence of a small number of outlier studies is unavoidable in all scientific fields.
These studies were conducted by researchers at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, other universities, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Urban Institute, private research firms, and, yes, also at a couple of think tanks that support school choice. If you dismiss the research showing that school choice works on grounds that it was all conducted by researchers who think school choice works, you might just as well dismiss the research showing that smoking causes cancer on grounds that it was all done by researchers who think smoking causes cancer. Part of the beauty of the scientific method is that when a study follows sound methods, the identity of the researcher becomes irrelevant.
(2) We [in Oklahoma public schools] welcome ALL children unconditionally!
—Rob Miller, Oklahoma educator, A View from the Edge blog
Especially for poor children, more often the school is the one making the choice, not the parents.
—Brett Dickerson, Oklahoma educator, Life at the Intersections blog
It is a lie that public schools accept all children. Over 100,000 students are expelled from public schools each year. Many more are removed from regular classrooms and shunted off into “alternative” programs, where the system doesn’t care whether they get an education.
It is also a lie that private schools in choice programs are highly selective and make it difficult for at-risk students to get accepted. Participating parents – of all races, income levels and even disability statuses – consistently report that they had little difficulty finding a school that served them. This shouldn’t be surprising. Most of these private schools are indigenous to the community and exist precisely to serve these student populations. The typical choice school is an inner-city Catholic school that has always wanted to serve more, not fewer, at-risk students. The choice program allows it to do so.
Yes, some choice programs do permit private schools to deny admission to particular students they don’t think they can serve well. This is a good thing. The whole point of school choice is that all students are unique and have their own needs. The idea that every school should try be the right school for every student is the whole problem with the government school monopoly in the first place.
When the parents themselves start reporting that they’re having difficulty finding a school to serve them, that is something I’ll take very seriously. What I will never take seriously is the fictional complaints invented by the public school unions and put in the mouths of parents to protect their unjust monopoly.
(3) [Education Savings Accounts] reduce the already limited amount of resources available to public schools and threaten to exacerbate the current teacher shortage!
—Press release, Oklahoma State School Boards Association
The problem is, if you take money away from the public school, even if you take one child out, you still have to pay the teacher, the electric bills, buses. You’ve still got all the expenses, but now you have less money.
—Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association
School choice does not reduce the per-student funding available to public schools. When students leave public schools using choice, the schools lose a share of that student’s funding, but not all of it. What they do lose all of is the costs associated with educating that student.
Yes, schools still have lights they have to keep on. You know what else they still have? All of the funding that isn’t tied to student enrollment counts. Schools get funding from many sources that doesn’t go down when students leave. Fiscal studies consistently confirm that school choice programs don’t harm public school finances, and often strengthen them.
As for the so-called teacher shortage, the unions have been inventing stories about a teacher shortage consistently for decades. The number of teachers can go up or down, it doesn’t matter; there’s always a shortage. If so, the best thing we can do is move students out of public schools, where the teaching profession is stymied by numerous union-backed barriers to entry, and into private schools that are free to hire talented young people into the profession.
(4) Some of us think that public schools are dangerous mostly because it’s where children of different races mix together and wear the same uniforms on the sports field. Can’t have that.
—Brett Dickerson, Oklahoma educator, Life at the Intersections blog
School choice reduces racial segregation and provides a more racially integrated school experience. Of the eight studies that have examined racial segregation in private choice programs, seven found that choice moved students from more segregated classrooms and schools into less segregated classrooms and schools; one found no visible difference. No empirical study has ever found that private school choice increased racial segregation.
Of all the myths about school choice, this one is not only the most infuriating, it’s the most dangerous. The government school system is very heavily segregated by race because it’s tied to residence. People tend to live in racially homogenous neighborhoods, and tend to go to school where they live. School choice breaks down racial barriers by making it possible for students to go to school outside their neighborhoods. Again, the typical private choice school is an inner-city Catholic school – more diverse, not less, than the nearby public schools. If we care about segregation, the worst thing we can do is indulge these paranoid fantasies about private schooling.
There’s so much we still don’t know about education. I’d love it if we researchers could focus our energy on uncovering the facts we don’t yet have. What factors are most important in a high quality teacher? To what extent does a school’s institutional culture make a difference? What policy and social conditions are needed to support more robust creation of new schools? Why do we see some evidence that there may be a tradeoff between good academic outcomes and good moral character outcomes, when we would expect the two to be aligned?
What we still don’t know about education is a big deal. But our bigger problem is what we think we know that isn’t so.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (Crossway Books, 2014). He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.