Give Vouchers and School Choice a Chance
All We Are Saying is Give Choice a Chance
Critics of school choice programs invoke a two-pronged attack. First, they claim that only the best students with the most motivated parents will take advantage of charter schools and voucher programs-two of the most popular choice vehicles. Presumably, the best students come from families in which parents are involved at home and at school and who provide more support for their child, partnering with the school. Second, critics contend that the flight of the best students leaves behind disproportionately large groups of chronically underperforming, special needs, and problem children who will drag down the rest of the students in the public schools. Teachers will spend inordinate amounts of time on discipline and basics; administrators will be obliged to devote excessive amounts of resources to meet special needs. Critics contend these two effects will doom the traditional public school system to failure. Indirect evidence to the contrary, however, has been uncovered. These data may be preliminary, but they are compelling.
Enrollment data on charter schools in the 1997-98 school year show that the demographic mix of students enrolling in charter schools is remarkably like that of students in the rest of the school system-the flight of the best and brightest or the affluent or nonminorities is not apparent. The striking similarity of these enrollment patterns rebuts arguments that only the privileged will choose the option of charter schools.
Furthermore, over the past 10 years in the Milwaukee school system, which operates the country’s longest-running publicly provided school voucher program, the performance of students in the system has increased remarkably. In fact, their increases have outstripped those of students in the rest of the state. There may be disputes about the performance of the students who have used vouchers and left the Milwaukee public school system, but the data show that the students left behind are faring quite well. Competition to keep students (and the concomitant funding) may be providing an incentive for the administrators and teachers in Milwaukee to pick up the pace and improve overall performance.
According to a January 2000 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nationwide there are minimal differences in the distribution of minorities, the disadvantaged, and disabled students in charter schools and traditional public schools.
Students’ eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch program (a measure of economic disadvantage) allows for the comparison of poverty levels between students in charter schools and those in public schools in the states that have charter schools.