Anna Egalite, assistant professor of education at NC State, will be speaking about school choice on Tuesday, Oct. 6 in Washington, D.C. at the 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity organized by the Heritage Foundation.
Egalite, a faculty member in educational leadership, policy and human development, has reviewed 21 studies of school vouchers, the basis for her presentation this week. We asked to preview her remarks and share the origins of her interest in school choice.
- What led you to study school choice? Why is it timely now?
There are few issues more controversial in American education than private school choice, and if I had grown up in this country I might have hesitated before choosing to research such a thorny issue that appears to bitterly divide otherwise agreeable groups of people. But I grew up in Ireland, in a system of universal private school choice, where the recognition that parents are the primary educators of the child is enshrined in our constitution. We believe that families have the inalienable right and duty to choose the school that provides for “the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.” When I moved to the United States to teach in an under-resourced Catholic school in Pinellas Park, Florida, I was saddened to realize the sacrifice it took for American parents to exercise the same right that I had taken for granted. The students in my fourth-grade classroom had no state assistance to help cover the modest annual tuition our Catholic school charged and, regrettably, many struggled, bouncing back and forth between the Pinellas County public school system and our Catholic alternative. I started to investigate the research evidence on school choice to see if my intuition was leading me astray, but the results spoke for themselves.
American communities face a plethora of challenges today: illiteracy and innumeracy; unemployment; segregation; persistent, generational poverty; crime; health disparities that correlate with economic status … the list goes on. Education has long been viewed as a mechanism to address many of these issues and families of means have the option to seek out those awesome public schools that are delivering the goods. They can take on a mortgage in the right neighborhood or they can pay the tuition expenses of a private school alternative. Americans with economic resources already have extensive school choice. For those families who don’t have the financial means, however, their options are substantially more limited. School choice programs offer one mechanism to address that disparity.
- How can school choice benefit students, particularly those who are disadvantaged?
The most important educational outcome that an evaluation of any school reform should consider iseducational attainment – making sure students reach those critical milestones like high school graduation and college enrollment. Arguably, this is the most important educational outcome we can measure because it captures so much of what we hope schooling can accomplish—academic achievement of course, but also the development of non-cognitive skills like grit, conscientiousness, and resilience. These are the skills that are critical to ensuring economic success as an adult. As President Obama has stated, “Graduating from high school is an economic imperative.”
The evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that I cite in the Heritage article was a government evaluation of a school voucher program in Washington D.C. that was targeted to low-income families. Random chance (think of the flip of a coin) determined which children got access to the program and which didn’t, generating comparable “treatment” and “control” groups. Comparing the outcomes of the voucher users to the control group, the researchers noticed a difference of 21 percentage points in the rates of high school graduation between the two groups—from 70 percent in the control group to 91 percent.
- One of the major concerns about school choice is the potential to segregate students based on race and/or class. What did you find?
In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department sought an injunction against the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a private school voucher program for low-income families in Louisiana, on the grounds that it interfered with federally mandated efforts to desegregate school districts in that state. The lawsuit cited the example of Celilia Primary School, which lost six black students to the voucher program, “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.”
A colleague and I decided to dig a little deeper so as to evaluate the sum impact of all voucher transfers, to see if that pattern was persistent. Examining the voucher’s impact in the 2012-13 school year, we found that the vast majority (about 80 percent) of these low-income voucher users were African-American. Further, many of these students were living in highly segregated neighborhoods and attending racially homogeneous public schools. The school voucher broke the deterministic relationship between residential neighborhood and assigned public school, actually helping to reduce overall racial segregation. Specifically, in the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders, 74 percent of students using vouchers improved integration by leaving their public schools and 56 percent improved integration in the private schools they arrived into.
- How did families find the information needed to choose the best school for their children? Do any changes need to be made to give them better means of comparing school options?
This is a great question and the answer is ever-evolving. New Orleans offers us some insight because every family in that city must choose their child’s school, whether public, charter or private, through the OneApp system. Research of families’ revealed preferences demonstrates a preference for school proximity, sports, music and after-school programs, in addition to test score performance. This is interesting to me, because I think it reveals a lot about parents’ hidden knowledge about their children. I believe that parents are uniquely positioned to understand their child’s diverse strengths and unique needs and to recognize which schools can meet those needs. Websites like GreatSchools are one way that parents can share knowledge about different schools’ strengths and weaknesses. Online message boards provide another avenue. Finally, state report cards are a useful information source for parents. There is still a lot to be done to improve these information sources, however.
- How does competition for students affect traditional public schools, which stand to lose students and funding? How can they adjust to marketplace demands with fewer resources?
In theory, competition among schools should “lift all boats.” Whether competition works in practice, however, is an empirical question that we have only just begun to figure out. Up until now, there have been 21 studies of the competitive impacts of vouchers on public school performance: 20 of these show neutral-to-positive effects on public school performance, one shows exclusively null effects, and none show negative effects. This area is ripe for research, though. These studies only examine the achievement of public school performance on standardized tests in the wake of the introduction of a competitive threat. Many questions remain.