By Greg Forster
Oklahoma has embraced the national revolution of educational choice—it’s one of 30 states with private school choice programs. As the state has now moved to embrace the best kind of school choice, Education Savings Accounts, government unions and their allies have howled all the louder that choice is awful. But if that’s so, why do they have to keep running away from the facts? What are they afraid of?
On a shrieking, hysterical webpage titled “#ESAIsNotOK,” the Oklahoma Education Coalition (OEC) repeats a large number of long-discredited myths about school choice. Let’s zero in on what is probably the most important one:
Vouchers are UNPROVEN as a means of consistently or significantly improving student achievement for all students…Research on voucher programs in other states shows vouchers have been costly but offers no confidence that vouchers will improve achievement among participating students.
I’ve reviewed all the existing empirical research on school choice programs—no cherry-picking, no exceptions. Here’s what it finds.
Far from being “costly,” school choice saves taxpayer money and also has a positive fiscal effect on school budgets—especially when it uses a voucher or ESA structure. When a student leaves, the public school loses all the expenses associated with that student but not all the revenue, because of the convoluted way we fund public schools. Twenty-eight empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers and public schools; of these, 25 find that school choice programs save money, and three find that the programs they study are revenue neutral. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
Since the programs save money rather than costing money, both for taxpayers and for public school budgets, they need not produce enormous academic benefits to be worth adopting. Even modest gains are great if you can get them for free—or, in this case, better than free.
Eighteen studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the gold standard of social science. Of these, 14 find choice improves student outcomes: six find that all students benefit and eight find that some benefit and some are not visibly affected. Two studies find no visible impact, and two studies find that Louisiana’s program—where most of the eligible private schools were scared away from the program by arbitrary intimidation from federal and state agencies—had a negative impact.
More important than its impact on participating students, however, is its impact on the much larger number of students who remain in public schools. Thirty empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 28 find that choice improved public schools, one finds no visible impact, and one finds a negative impact.
Now, let’s be clear. There’s a lot more to education than test scores. Unlike our would-be master-of-the-universe professional expert class, whose technocratic ambitions have so far managed to do little more than run us further down into the ditch we’re already in, most parents don’t give test scores overriding priority. They have a holistic understanding of what it means to be educated. That’s one reason we should trust parents, not our all-thumbs, foot-shooting class of technocrats, to control education. But test scores and other formal academic outcomes (like graduation rates) do matter, and the research favors school choice on these outcomes.
In case you’re wondering about the terminology, the OEC webpage insists for some reason that we must refer to ESAs as “vouchers.” Their arguments are so bankrupt on the merits that their only hope of persuading people to reject ESAs is by changing the label to something they think has negative emotional associations. Fortunately, the word “vouchers” has never really been a liability for the school choice movement. Moreover, people do tend to notice which side is making a real argument and which is focused on manipulating emotions—even when the latter makes some effort to hide its reliance on manipulative tactics, which OEC does not.
But that’s not the worst of it. At least OEC sticks to the tried-and-true, focus-group-tested myths cooked up by professional opponents of choice. Other, less polished voices reveal the darker side of the anti-choice coalition.
Oklahoma edu-blogger Rob Miller at least resembles OEC in that he uses boldface to indicate where the key departures from reality occur. Other than that, he sinks to a much lower level:
Ask yourself how a voucher for private school is going to help a child with two siblings living in government housing, with a single parent working two jobs, in a crime-filled neighborhood of Tulsa or Oklahoma City? The reality is that it will not.
Why not? Because, Miller says, only rich parents care enough about their kids to take advantage of school choice programs. Poor parents are shiftless and lazy, and will therefore leave their kids to wither in public schools when they could get a better education in private schools.
No, really, here’s his actual argument:
Those children blessed with engaged and motivated parents will take their public tax dollars to whatever education venue they choose. The exodus of privileged children from the public school system, particularly in urban areas, will exacerbate the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and restore an era of separate and unequal schools which will do irreparable harm to our nation.
Yikes. Martin Luther King, call your office.
There are now 61 school choice programs in 30 states plus Washington, D.C. They serve about 400,000 students. You know who those students are? Disproportionately, they’re the underprivileged kids whose parents are allegedly too shiftless and lazy to use school choice.
Now, it’s certainly true that some parents are more engaged in their children’s education than others. And, uncomfortable as this reality is, there does appear to be some degree of relationship between parental engagement in children’s education and socioeconomic status.
But “some degree of relationship” doesn’t mean rich parents love their kids and poor parents don’t. To blow this up into some kind of Eloi-and-Morlocks nightmare out of H.G. Wells is outrageous.
There you have the two main flavors of school choice myths in a nutshell: misrepresentation of data and hard facts, offered up by incompetent technocrats; and wild tales of the depraved evils of parents and schools, offered up by resentful bigots. No wonder they’re afraid of the facts.
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.