Sunday, October 14, 2012

School choice criticism wilts under close review

Posted on October 10, 2012 by Bob Luebke in Education

A recent poll of North Carolinians by the Civitas Institute and the Friedman Foundation reported that if given a choice of where to educate their child, only 34 percent of respondents said they would choose a traditional public school. Almost two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) said they would enroll their child in other educational options such as charter schools (15 percent), private schools (39 percent) or home schools (11 percent).
Yet approximately 87 percent of all K-12 students are enrolled in public schools.
These poll findings illustrate a major disconnect between what school choices parents would like to have, compared to the choices that are realistically available.
Moreover, these findings demonstrate the popularity of school choice among the general public. School choice options are likely to receive serious consideration when the North Carolina General Assembly convenes next year. Not surprisingly, these developments have raised the noise volume of complaints by school choice critics.
Two of the most common criticisms of school choice revolve around a couple of assertions: (1) School choice is costly and takes money from the public schools; and (2) school choice allows private schools to “cherry pick” students and leads to segregated schools. Are these claims true?
No! Let’s look at them more closely.
The claim that school choice siphons money from the public schools is based on the simplistic view that if funding is driven by the number of students enrolled and the number of students declines; funding would also decline. Such thinking is flawed, however.
It is true that a loss in students would result in a decline in total revenue. But what is often forgotten is that such changes are offset by cost reductions resulting from the smaller student population. Fewer teachers, instructional support personnel, books, etc. would be required. It is also true that when schools experience enrollment declines, funding declines at a slower rate so as to ease the effect of the loss of student revenue.[1]  The effect is to essentially provide additional money to compensate for absent students.
Additionally, rarely if ever do school choice vouchers provide 100 percent of state education costs to voucher recipients. Thus, taxpayers save money because the voucherized student costs less than if she stayed in a traditional public school.
School choice critics also assert that fewer students will result in fewer taxpayer dollars to educate all students and to cover schools’ fixed costs. Not so, says one school finance expert. In The Fiscal Effects of Public School Choice Programs on Public School Districts, Benjamin Scafidi asks: If a significant number of students left a public school district for any reason from one year to the next, then is it feasible for the district to reduce some of its expenditures commensurate with the decrease in the student population? After analyzing the finances of districts that lost students, Scafidi found that both large and small districts were able to reduce expenses at a rate higher than what is needed to make up for the losses in students. Thus, school districts were more than able to treat certain costs as variable in the short run, and therefore adjust for the changes. Scafidi goes even further and says that such losses in enrollment due to available school choice options can actually help to improve academic performance by forcing some schools to get rid of ineffective teachers and providing more incentives to improve the public schools.[2]
A second common criticism of school choice programs is that they cherry-pick students and lead to increased segregation. Let’s address the first charge. Do parental choice policies like charter schools or tuition tax credits result in private schools “skimming off” the best students and leaving behind poorer, less able students?
Such a claim ignores the reality that, unlike public schools, private schools derive a high percentage of their revenue from tuition. By definition private schools are seeking to maximize enrollment. It defies logic that they would readily turn away students. Of course some private schools do turn away students. For instance, some private schools are not equipped to offer the same level of services for special-needs students. On the whole, however, private schools have strong incentives to accept students.
Moreover, the North Carolina statutes prohibit a charter school from discriminating against any student on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability (115C-238.29F(g)(5).
Critics also claim that school choice leads to more-segregated schools. The fact is, our nation’s public schools and districts are already heavily segregated. They are segregated primarily because of residential segregation and because public school attendance patterns are largely determined by where people live. The research backs up such claims. Studies in Cleveland[3], Milwaukee[4] and Washington, DC[5] all found that students in school choice programs attend more-highly integrated schools than their public school counterparts.
Desegregation efforts have largely failed because they are geographically limited. White families who move to the suburbs cannot legally be forced to bus their children across municipal lines. Private schools, by contrast, can draw students with no limitation to geography. In fact, private schools typically draw from a much larger geographic area than public schools. That means private schools can mitigate the effects of residential segregation in a way public schools cannot match.
Yes, public schools as a whole have more minority representation than private schools. However the distribution of minorities within the public and private-school sectors show that by detaching school assignments from residence, individual private schools are likely to be more integrated schools.
Recent polls indicate North Carolinians want school choice. The growing popularity of school choice has increased the noise volume of its critics. That however should not distract us from the facts. The beneficial fiscal impacts of school choice and the way school choice offers a better opportunity to integrate schools offer powerful reasons why it is a good option for students, parents and taxpayers and why North Carolina should move forward with expanding school choice for everyone.