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St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Conservative study applauds school options
September 20, 2000

by Matthew Franck

Parents in Missouri and Illinois have slightly more choices than parents elsewhere when it comes to educating their children, according to a first-of-its-kind study released Tuesday.

The report ranks states based on the passage of school choice laws, including those that allow charter schools, vouchers and state spending on private schools. Missouri ranks 19th on the list; Illinois comes in 24th.

The study was prepared by the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative nonprofit group that supports school choice.

The report also suggests that states with greater choice have higher scores on national standardized exams.

That claim is a particularly significant one, researchers say.

For years, school choice advocates have promised that competition will drive public schools to improve. The study may provide ammunition to their cause, offering evidence that states could benefit by passing school choice initiatives.

"This shows that expanding parental option is not only desirable, but that it improves student performance," said Jay Greene, a researcher who prepared the report.

Critics of school choice initiatives attacked the report Tuesday. Michael Pons, of the National Education Association, said years of research show that improving schools has more to do with lowering class size and improving teacher quality than with charter schools and voucher programs.

Greene hopes the rankings will prompt states like Missouri and Illinois -- which have a moderate degree of choice -- to pass additional school choice measures.

The rankings rate states based on five categories, including:

  • The availability of charter schools. Missouri ranks 17th in this category, while Illinois is listed as 23rd.
  • Government assistance to private schools. This includes vouchers, which give parents money to cover tuition, or state spending on such things as textbooks or transportation for private schools. Missouri ranks near the bottom in this category. Illinois ranks third, thanks to a tax credit program for private school tuition and state spending at private schools.
  • Home-schooling options. This compares how easy it is for parents to home-school and the number of children choosing the option. Missouri ranks 14th, while Illinois is 34th.
  • The ability of families to switch school districts without moving. Illinois is tied for last among states, while Missouri ranks 19th. In the St. Louis area, a voluntary desegregation program allows thousands of students to transfer between county and city schools.
  • The ability of families to switch school districts by moving to a nearby neighborhood. Missouri ranks 13th, while Illinois comes in seventh.

The last category is the most complex. In some states, school districts are large and cover entire metropolitan areas, leaving few options to parents. But in Missouri and Illinois, school districts are numerous. Parents here could move to a school district with higher student performance without leaving the metropolitan area.

The researchers admit that the rankings are only one way of looking at school choice. A study using different categories could yield completely different rankings, they say.

Mae Duggan, president of St. Louis-based Citizens for Educational Freedom, argues that Missouri does not have enough choice because it still bans all government spending on private schools and has no tax credit for parents who choose private schools.

"We have absolutely no choice," Duggan said.

Greene said the most important aspect of the report is not the rankings, but its conclusions on how school choice affects impacts test scores.

States with the greatest amount of choice, he said, generally have higher student performance on both the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. This holds true, Greene said, even when such factors as school spending, class size and family income are taken into account.

Elliot Mincberg, of the anti-voucher group People for the American Way, said Greene's conclusions lack any foundation, since the rankings are subjective. Another study on school choice could, for example, produce entirely different rankings and different conclusions on test scores, he said.


Ranking states on educational choice

States with the most choices for parents:

  1. Arizona
  2. Minnesota
  3. Wisconsin
  4. New Jersey
  5. Oregon
  6. Texas
  7. Delaware
  8. Colorado
  9. Maine
  10. Connecticut
  11. Missouri
  12. Illinois

States with the fewest choices for parents:

  1. Hawaii
  2. West Virginia
  3. Nevada
  4. Kentucky
  5. Maryland
  6. Rhode Island
  7. Virginia
  8. South Carolina
  9. Alaska
  10. Georgia

SOURCE: The Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research

©2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch



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