School Choice and Charter Schools in Review: What Have We Learned?

Author:Grube, Laura
  1. Introduction

    School choice is front and center in the national debate on K-12 education in the United States. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed to spend over $1 billion to expand school choice. DeVos has criticized the traditional public school system, referring to it as a monopoly, and has worked to expand school choice and charter schools in her home state of Michigan (Strauss 2017). Critics of school choice are wary of the privatization of schools and worry that school choice and charter programs harm traditional public schools and the children who attend them. The issue of school choice (and charter schools) remains highly politicized, with each side holding strongly to its views. Given several decades of experience with school choice and charter schools, can we assess the accuracy of some of the arguments in favor of and against school choice and charter schools? Further, how does the experiment with choice and charter schools inform our understanding of competition in non market environments?

    Milton Friedman is often credited as beginning the national conversation around school choice with his 1955 essay, "The Role of Government in Education." Friedman posits that significant "neighborhood effects" warrant "each child to receive a minimum amount of education of a specified kind" (par. 6). These neighborhood effects, or positive externalities, exist because not only do the child and the parents receive the benefit of the child's education, but so do other members of society. As he states, "A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens" (par. 5). According to Friedman, government may therefore mandate some basic level of education. Such a requirement, however, would burden families financially. Therefore, Friedman proposes the use of government financial resources (i.e., tax revenues) to support primary and secondary education.

    Government provision, or the use of tax revenues to provide education, however, does not necessarily imply government production, or what Friedman calls the "nationalization" of education. (1) Another option, which Friedman describes, is the voucher system.

    Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on 'approved' educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an 'approved' institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of the government would be limited to assuring that the schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards (par. 11). The status quo is that a child is assigned to a school based on where the child lives. In many cases, in order to change schools, parents must change their residence. Private schools are available, but at an additional cost. The key benefit of the voucher system is to give parents the opportunity to send their child to a wider range of schools, expanding the available choices. Friedman's argument in favor of vouchers and allowing private enterprise to produce education (with government ensuring that the schools meet certain minimum standards) ([1962] 2002, p. 89) is centered on the value of freedom of choice.

    In the decades following, school choice and charter programs were implemented across the country. School choice is designed to offer a voucher for students to attend private schools (including religious schools); most charter schools are public schools with higher levels of autonomy (see the distinctions across these school types in table 1). Researchers have attempted to evaluate the impact of school choice and charter schools by engaging with a range of research questions. For example, do students who attend school choice and charter schools perform better than students at traditional public schools? Or, do all students--across all school types-experience the benefits of competition? Do school choice and charter schools lead to a diversity of curricula and spur innovation in education? Do school choice and charter schools result in cream skimming, where the highest-achieving students move to one school and leave lower-achieving students behind? We address these key questions in section 3, where we summarize the findings in the literature on school choice and charter schools.

    Several studies have summarized the arguments and findings on school choice, charter schools, and student achievement (measured in various ways) (Gill et al. 2001; Enlow and Ealy 2006; Rouse and Barrow 2008; Hess 2010). Hess provides an accessible history of the debate and highlights several major contributions of the last two decades. Enlow and Ealy's edited book addresses key questions within Friedman's argument and features a range of experts on school choice.

    Our study contributes to the literature in three ways. One, we present and review responses to arguments in favor of and against school choice and charter schools and make a deliberate effort to reach across the ideological divide and consult a range of literature. We recognize the difficulties in this task and do not pretend to include all perspectives or offer an unbiased view. Two, we highlight some of the methodological and empirical issues that make some answers unclear. And three, although we address Friedman's 1955 essay, we focus our analysis on more recent contributions. For example, we analyze twenty quantitative studies published since 2002 on school choice and charter schools.

    In the next section, we define the distinctions between school choice, charter schools, and what we refer to as "traditional public schools." We use Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as an example to further explain these different types of schools. Then, we present a series of propositions in favor and against school choice and charter schools. Finally, we offer a discussion of our findings and conclude.

  2. School Choice, Charter Schools, and (Traditional) Public Schools

    The first school choice program was established in 1990 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Today, fifteen states and Washington, DC, provide tax subsidies or publicly funded vouchers that allow students to attend private schools (EdChoice 2017). Many voucher programs allow students to attend religious schools, and the US Supreme Court established in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that using vouchers for religious education does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Many school choice programs are means-based and targeted toward low-income students. School choice programs may practice selective admission. Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have the greatest number of students that use vouchers to attend private schools, while Arizona has the highest percentage of students receiving a voucher, at approximately 6.3 percent of total K--12 students (Wolf 2012, p. 2).

    Charter schools also arose during the early 1990s and are publicly funded schools that operate with some level of autonomy over curriculum--and, in some cases, over budgets and personnel (see table 1 for a comparison of charter schools in Milwaukee). As the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools states, "Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement" (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, n.d.). The National Alliance also states that charter schools are "open to all children; do not charge tuition; and do not have special entrance requirements." If a charter school has more applications than spots available, it must use a lottery system to allocate spots. Although charter schools cannot use (positive) student achievement to determine who they accept, there is likely a sorting effect, and it may be that more educated families apply (Ravitch 2016, p. 143).

    Charter schools can be started by any person or organization. When applying to start a charter school, the applicant must write a proposal that outlines the curriculum and goals. An authorized agency reviews the charter school application and can either grant a charter (which typically extends for several years), or deny it. The school has a certain number of years to produce results that satisfy the agreement. Today, there are over 6,400 charter schools that serve over 2.5 million children, or approximately 5 percent of students in the United States (CREDO 2015).

    As Ravitch (2016, p. xviii) states, charter schools are less controversial than vouchers because they do not involve church-state issues. Additionally, some charter schools (i.e., instrumentality charter schools) also hire teachers (who are unionized) from the district. Both school choice and charter schools expand choice, and sometimes the terms "private school choice" and "public school choice" are applied (respectively) to describe the two programs. A major point of contention against charter schools and school choice is that both programs take funding away from traditional public schools. (3)

    Indeed, many people do not consider charter schools to be public schools because they have a definition of "public school" that goes beyond "publicly funded." Traditional public schools, as we refer to them here, are open to all students in the catchment area, follow state guidelines for curriculum and hiring teachers, and are governed by an elected school board. Proponents of traditional public schools tend to emphasize that they are local, neighborhood schools operating through democratically elected school...

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