In the ongoing effort to improve the American public school system, advocates of school choice argue that increasing options for students and parents encourages education innovation and continuous school improvement. When parents are provided with options—through charter schools, virtual education, and affordable private institutions—schools are held accountable and forced to compete to attract and retain students. What evidence is there that school choice increases student performance nationwide? What can we learn from school districts with demonstrated success in school choice programs? What role should school choice play in the larger effort of educational reform?
On December 7, Russ Whitehurst, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and author of the 2012 Education Choice and Competition Index, took your questions in a live web chat moderated by Andrea Drusch at POLITICO. Read a full transcript of the chat below.
12:30 Andrea Drusch: Welcome everyone, let’s get started.
12:30 Comment from Jill: Is the choice initiative really about school quality, or is it about fairness?
12:31 Russ Whitehurst: Choice is about four things: school quality, fairness, parent desire to choose, and innovation. These are mutually supportive.
12:31 Comment from Anonymous: It seems like, at the root of the school choice issue, is the idea that putting schools into a market framework improves their overall quality (competition weeds out the lesser schools). But how do we know that the most popular schools in a district are still “the best?”
12:32 Russ Whitehurst: We can look at their performance according to objective criteria, such as student achievement gains, as well as their popularity.
12:32 Comment from Jennifer: What kinds of information do parents need in order to make well-informed choices about where to send their children to school?
12:33 Russ Whitehurst: Past student gains on academic tests; popularity of the school with parents; graduation and college-going rates for high schools; student and staff absentee rates; extra curricula and elective options; student ratings, among other types of info.
12:33 Comment from Mark: What role, if any, should the federal government play regarding choice and competition in local school districts?
12:33 Russ Whitehurst: The most important thing the federal government could do would be to let federal Title I and IDEA funds follow students to their school of choice rather than the current arrangement of providing funds to traditional school districts. The feds also have a very important role to play in generating valid information on school performance.
12:33 Comment from Jon: How, specifically, does school choice support fairness?
12:34 Russ Whitehurst: Currently, families who can afford to pay private school tuition or move to a neighborhood with good public schools have choice. Poor and immobile parents don’t. Choice extends to all families the opportunity to choose. That is fair.
12:34 Comment From ky: How about transportation? Even if the choices are given, wouldn’t it still cause unfairness if the children in low income family who cannot attend another school out of their district (can’t afford a car, not a good public transportation – and even if there is, the cost could still add up)?
12:35 Russ Whitehurst: We give districts credit for supporting transportation expenses for parents that exercise choice.
12:35 Comment from Guest: I live in an urban neighborhood that according to the 2010 census is 50% white and 50% students of color. In this neighborhood are two public schools. One is a magnet school another is a community school. Your argument that choice and competition will improve schools rings hollow. What I see is the popular “choice” schools do not have things such as ELL services for large number of Hispanic students in the neighborhood, hence no Hispanic children. They don’t have Special Ed, so no Special Ed students. Families are required to submit choice cards in January. Only 50% of families complete choice cards and the families that do are typically affluent, white families. So the “choice” school doesn’t take poor families who register for school in the summer. The “choice” school has a long wait list so if anyone drops out or moves, they call up white families from the community school that are on the wait list to fill seats. The community school of course receives the homeless or highly mobile students the “choice school” keeps out with their wait list. One school has retreats to discuss their “Dreams,” the other school works like crazy to bring immigrant, poor and highly mobile students to grade level proficiency. Choice was originally designed to provide opportunities for poor and students of color, now it is more a free for all. This is a typical situation in urban school districts. How does choice help the schools who are given the hardest to educate students?
12:36 Russ Whitehurst: You need a much better designed choice system. The one you described would receive a very low rating in our ECCI because of the very issues you raise.
12:36 Comment from BA: I can see how this policy could improve school quality in densely populated areas, but how can we improve school quality in rural areas that can’t support multiple schools?
12:37 Russ Whitehurst: Virtual education is the primary avenue of choice in rural areas. In Michigan, for example, the governor has proposed legislation that would allow any district in the state to offer virtual courses to any student in the state. This will open new opportunities for students in rural schools, and increase school competition throughout the state.
12:37 Comment from Dave: What made NOLA’s Recovery District stand out? It was the only one to get an A??
12:38 Russ Whitehurst: The Recovery School District is the only one to receive an A. They were particularly strong in the availability of choice, their system for managing choice, and their support for transportation expenses. Check out the ECCI for the details.
12:38 Comment from Jessie: Beyond choice, what is the #1 thing schools need to ensure quality education for all?
12:39 Russ Whitehurst: There isn’t just one thing, but teachers and curriculum stand out as very important.
12:39 Comment from Sandy: If competition drives our schools, won’t they be less likely to share best practices and innovation ideas?
12:39 Russ Whitehurst: Schools can’t copyright best practices and innovations. So just as is the case in the rest of our economy—if someone figures out how to do it better, others will emulate.
12:40 Comment from Andrew: School choice often comes in the form of charter schools, which brings up issues of privatization of public education. Should we be concerned by this trend?
12:40 Russ Whitehurst: Charter schools are PUBLIC schools. They simply operate out the control of the traditional public school district. So there is no issue of privatization.
12:41 Comment from BA: What is the best way for districts to introduce choice into their existing student assignment systems? Which features are most important for effective choice policy?
12:41 Russ Whitehurst: Adopting open enrollment for traditional public schools rather than residential assignment is low-hanging fruit for many districts. Having a “no default policy”, i.e., every parent/student must choose, is the place to start.
12:41 Comment from Daryl: When parents “choose” schools, what information do they have available to them?
12:43 Russ Whitehurst: It differs from location to location, but we are in favor of providing as much information as possible that is of interest to parents, served up in digestible forms. Ideally there would be independent providers of this information so that parents could shop for information as well as schools.
12:43 Comment from MK: Does the data from your latest report support the thesis that choice is improving student performance?
12:44 Russ Whitehurst: We haven’t examined changes in school performance related to the particular index we’ve published. We’re planning to do this down the road. There is good evidence elsewhere that schools that are subject to competition improve, and that many students can receive a better education if their parents avail themselves of choice.
12:44 Comment from Jeff: Much of this sounds good—open enrollment, etc.— but it basically means the few white kids in the systems you are talking about will leave.
12:45 Russ Whitehurst: Not true. Everyone can choose in the system we recommend. Those who can leave and are dissatisfied will already have departed.
12:45 Comment from Emily: How do you maintain democratic accountability if an education system is largely run by private organizations? Specifically, how do you ensure that publically funded private schools provide a quality education?
12:46 Russ Whitehurst: Accountability can come in two forms: First, parents can provide it if test results and other important outcomes are publicly available for students attending schools that are supported with tax dollars. Second states can shut off funding to schools that are not producing acceptable student outcomes.
12:46 Comment from Sandy: Seems like so much of school choice is designed for those students in low performing schools – yet those are the parents without the means and knowledge to make those choices – it’s only the affluent parents, or parents of students with behaviour problems who take advantage of choice. And it all drags money away from underfunded public schools.
12:48 Russ Whitehurst: In the system we recommend, everyone has to choose. There are no default school assignments. Further, there are strong information supports for parents making choice so that more knowledgeable and affluent parents don’t have an advantage. Finally, the principal avenue of choice we recommend is open enrollment in public schools—which by definition cannot divert money from public schools.
12:48 Comment from Mary: Can you speak to choice and how it is or isn’t an implementation of privatization?
12:49 Russ Whitehurst: As per my answer to the previous question, the most promising and available avenue for choice is within the public sector — open enrollment in traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, state-run virtual schools. All of this is public. There is no privatization.
12:49 Comment from Jim: But how likely is it that districts will eliminate default assignment? Have any already done so?
12:51 Russ Whitehurst: Several of our high scoring districts have eliminated default assignments. The RSD in New Orleans is an example. NYC, Boston, and Denver have also moved to open enrollment systems. Most districts retain walking zone preferences for elementary school aged children, but even that isn’t necessary.
12:51 Comment from Gail in Fairfax: The best-performing districts in the country: what are they doing right?
12:52 Russ Whitehurst: They have widely available choice, i.e., affordable private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, open enrollment regular public schools. Everyone has to choose. That are common school application and assignment processes. Information to support choice is clear and accessible. There are good schools among the schools that are available.
12:52 Comment from Guest: How would you assess teacher quality in public schools vs. teacher quality in private schools?
12:54 Russ Whitehurst: I have no basis for making that assessment. It is possible, however, to compare the effectiveness of different schools, which depends to a significant degree on teacher quality. But that comparison has to be school by school. Private vs. public or charter vs. regular doesn’t tell you whether a school is of high quality.
12:54 Comment from Darcy: Does school choice improve cost-effectiveness for districts?
12:56 Russ Whitehurst: It depends of the type of choices that are available. When private schools are in the mix, supported by tax credits or tuition vouchers, tax payers typically save money. That would not necessarily be the case for an all public choice environment. However, if most money follows students to schools and schools can innovate, cost effectiveness can improve. The intro of blended learning into charter schools is an example.
12:56 Comment from Tay: Can you speak more to “virtual education?” I don’t hear that mentioned much when discussing choice?
12:58 Russ Whitehurst: Virtual education is a key component of choice. The Florida Virtual School is an early and successful example of the introduction of virtual education into the environment of public education. It has a very large enrollment. As I’ve mentioned in response to a previous question, virtual ed has a critical role to play in serving students in rural areas and in providing specialized courses, such as AP, that would otherwise be unavailable. It is also a strong force for efficiency.
12:58 Comment from Guest: How does school choice affect the social fabric of the community?
12:59 Russ Whitehurst: No strong evidence on this. I live in Washington DC. The introduction of choice and the large charter school presence seems to have had a lot to do with reviving the city and creating a stronger social fabric. Families want to live where there are good schools and school choice.
1:00 Andrea Drusch: Thanks everyone for your questions, see you next week.