In Washington, D.C., for example, the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides parents of disadvantaged children with up to $7,500 to attend private schools. This is in fact a huge savings to the government, since the District of Columbia spends $13,446 per student per year. According the WSJ article,
To qualify, a child must live in a family with a household income below 185% of the poverty level. Some 1,900 children participate; 99% are black or Hispanic. Average annual income is just over $22,000 for a family of four.
These people are obviously needy - exactly the kind of kids who fall through the cracks in many public schools today. But as the WSJ article points out,
A recent Department of Education report found nearly 90% of participants in the D.C. program have higher reading scores than peers who didn't receive a scholarship. There are five applicants for every opening.
This is a program that is working! So are our leaders jumping at the chance to duplicate this kind of success rate? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Instead, they are instead refusing the reauthorize the program.
The article also mentions the phenomenal success rate of EdisonLearning in Philadelphia, which in 2002 took over 20 of the city's 45 worst-performing schools.
The number of students performing at grade level or higher in reading at the schools managed by private providers increased by 6.1% overall compared to 3.3% in district-managed schools. In math, the results for Edison and other outside managers was 4.6% and 6.0%, respectively, compared to 3.1% in the district-run schools.
Wow - another program that is working! But again, the powers that be, instead of rushing to duplicate this kind of success, are trying to shut it down. "Last month, Philadelphia's school reform commission voted to seize six schools from outside managers, including four from Edison."
The WSJ article concludes with this:
Mr. Obama told an interviewer recently that he opposes school choice because, "although it might benefit some kids at the top, what you're going to do is leave a lot of kids at the bottom." The Illinois Senator has it exactly backward. Those at the top don't need voucher programs and they already exercise school choice. They can afford exclusive private schools, or they can afford to live in a neighborhood with decent public schools. The point of providing educational options is to extend this freedom to the "kids at the bottom."
A visitor to Mr. Obama's Web site finds plenty of information about his plans to fix public education in this country. Everyone knows this is a long, hard slog, but Mr. Obama and his wife aren't waiting. Their daughters attend the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where annual tuition ranges from $15,528 for kindergarten to $20,445 for high school.
So just exactly why does Mr. Obama think it's fine for him to have school choice - choice that costs him almost as much as our family makes in a year - but not for the rest of us?
School choice promotes competition, which almost always results in a better end product than a monopoly. In Colorado, open enrollment has allowed students some measure of school choice since 1994, and has been pretty effective; however, options are limited to public and charter schools, parents are responsible for transporting students to open-enrollment choices, and the best schools fill up quickly, often from within their own attendance areas.
But when we study the reality of what happens when families get real choices in education, we discover that, just as was true in Washington, D.C., choice means improvement. The Alliance for Choice in Education offers scholarships for children from needy families in Denver to attend private schools - and those students have a 95% graduation rate (in spite of the fact that 78% of their scholarship recipients have a household income of under $30,000/year, and the families are required to contribute half of the private school tuition!). Not only that, but students in these programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, where school vouchers are widely used, show significant improvements in reading and math (between 7 and 15 points higher in their percentile ranking from their own previous scores).
So what's the conclusion? As might be expected, increased competition means improved schools. I am aware of no studies that show what happens to public school test scores when competition is introduced (via charter schools, open enrollment, school vouchers, or privately-run public schools). Admittedly, this might be difficult to determine, since the competition would undoubtedly "skim" some of the better students from the public schools; still, it would be interesting to see what heppens. It would also be interesting to see the results of school choice on individual students. (We may someday be able to see these results, as the Milwaukee Longitudinal Educational Growth Study has just released its "Baseline Report" - perhaps 10-15 years in the future we'll be able to tell whether students in school voucher programs in fact show greater improvement in their test scores and in their success rates in life.) But given what we know now, state and local governments across the nation ought to be looking to increase competition in order to improve performance for all schools.