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National Review Online


The New Brown

February 21, 2002

By Jay P. Greene

Social-science evidence for the Court.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the school-choice case that was argued before the Supreme Court on February 20, is the most important case concerning educational opportunity since Brown v. Board of Education nearly five decades ago. As in Brown, the Court will address the educational fate of minority students. In Brown the concern was that segregated schools denied minority students access to a quality education, even if those schools were equally funded and staffed, while in Zelman the concern is that the lack of school choice denies Cleveland’s mostly low-income and minority students access to a quality education. And just as the Brown Court relied heavily on social-science research to arrive at their decision, the Zelman Court will be able to rely on research that shows school choice improves educational attainment for all students whether they choose to attend public or private schools.

More privileged families already enjoy school choice when they pay higher housing prices to move to better schools in the suburbs or when they pay tuition at private schools. Lower-income families, however, are too often stuck in low-quality big-city public schools. These low-quality schools can afford to take their students for granted because the lack of choices available to those students assures the schools that the students (and the money that comes with them) aren’t going anywhere. Choice supporters argue that only if low-income families are empowered with school choice, with the ability to leave schools and have the money follow their child, will low-quality schools be provided with the incentives to improve.

The major opposition to school choice comes from teachers’ unions, which argue that neither the students who receive vouchers nor those remaining in the public schools benefit educationally. And, they contend further, the public schools will be hurt if students and the resources that come with them can leave. Just give us more money, they plea, and then we will be able to offer a quality education. Never mind that per pupil spending in the United States has tripled over the last four decades in real dollars to $7,086 without any meaningful increase in student test scores or high-school graduation rates.

Obviously, schools need sufficient resources to provide a quality education, but there is a growing body of research to support the common-sense observation that public schools also need to be provided with the incentives to use their resources well. For example, Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby has found that metropolitan areas with more school districts exhibit higher student achievement at lower per-pupil spending. According to Hoxby, metropolitan areas like Boston, with a dozen public-school districts competing for families and tax resources, provide the schools with incentives to offer a better education. In metro areas like Miami, where the entire county is a single school district, schools face less competition since families would have to move to the next county to gain access to a different school. Not surprisingly, students in these districts don’t score as well.

My own Education Freedom Index similarly finds that states with a wider range of choices available to parents have higher public-school student achievement. States with more charter schools, more subsidized private-school options (through vouchers or tax credits), smaller school districts, and less-regulated homeschooling options have higher scores on the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

In addition, in Milwaukee, the city with the largest school-choice program, Hoxby has found that school choice has significantly improved student achievement in traditional public schools. She found that schools that were more exposed to competition from the voucher program exhibited greater improvements in student test scores than schools that were less exposed. Rather than draining schools of necessary resources, these studies suggest that school choice helps improve public schools by providing them with incentives to use their resources more effectively.

The claim that choice fails to benefit those who are able to choose a private school is belied by a remarkably strong set of studies that show significant benefits for voucher recipients, particularly low-income African-American students. There have been five random-assignment school-choice experiments, in Charlotte, Dayton, Milwaukee, New York, and Washington, D.C. (Random-assignment, as in medical experiments, is the gold standard of research design because it allows us to rule out with confidence the possibility that better outcomes for students who received vouchers were the result of differences in the backgrounds of students.) Since the students were assigned to treatment and control groups by lottery, the superior outcomes for voucher recipients are attributable to the program since their backgrounds are otherwise identical. Hardly any education policies have been the subject of even one major random-assignment study, but school choice has had five such studies. The positive outcomes from these five random-assignment school-choice experiments have held up even after being analyzed and reanalyzed by researchers from Harvard, Georgetown, Princeton, University of Wisconsin, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Manhattan Institute.

Just as the decision in Brown hinged on the social-science evidence that segregated schools were inherently unequal, the current school-choice case may be similarly influenced. Given the strength of the evidence that school choice improves the quality of long-stagnant public schools as well as benefits the low-income minority recipients of vouchers, there is good reason to believe that the Supreme Court will find a way to uphold the constitutionality of choice programs. If the Court does uphold school choice, we will have taken another giant step toward the ideal of equal educational opportunities for all children.

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