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What We Stand For: School Choice

Learning From the Evidence on School Choice

A White Paper by Betheny Gross for Stand for Children Leadership Center

In recent decades, the array of policy options designed to increase families’ choices amongst publicly funded schools and the number of families making such choices has expanded dramatically. Modern public school choice programs spring from diverse roots, including magnet and inter-district choice programs started in the 1960s to increase economic and racial integration, voucher programs that seek to leverage market incentives and provide underserved students a quick exit from failing schools, and charter school programs that introduce new schools, rules, and operators into the public education system. 

After decades of implementation it is clear that these policies, while not uniformly successful, have produced clear pockets of success. High-quality studies across all types of choice policies (vouchers, charters, public school choice) find that various choice policies benefit at least some students—but these benefits are not universal. Instead, positive effects seem to be more consistently experienced by certain kinds of students, in specific jurisdictions, and, in the case of charter schools, from certain operators. 

Some cities have used choice policies to leverage substantial gains in student performance. These pockets of success are generating important lessons about how best to design and implement choice policies.

Seemingly contradictory evidence on the impact of choice policies can give the impression that this research is inconclusive. But when we take the quality of research into account, clear patterns of effectiveness emerge. The strongest studies of choice policies use “gold standard” methods that exploit random lotteries to draw credible comparisons between treated and control students. Where lottery studies are not available or limited, longitudinal studies that examine the impact of moving into or out of schools can offer high-quality analysis, as can studies that use sophisticated student-matching techniques. This paper focuses on the patterns and conclusions that can be drawn from research that is of sufficient quality to support causal conclusions about the impacts of school choice. 

This paper begins with an overview of existing choice programs and a discussion of the current evidence available on these policies and their impact on student outcomes and equity. This research supports some conclusions about the impact of different forms of school choice on student achievement, and also suggests that specific policy design questions shape the impact of choices. It concludes by identifying and exploring policy design choices that have the potential to maximize the benefits of choice while minimizing the adverse effects.

The rest of this paper is available as a PDF download:

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Betheny Gross is a Senior Research Analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, WA.

About Stand for Children Leadership Center

 Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides leadership development and training to everyday citizens. Our mission is to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, college and career training. To make that happen, we:

  • Educate and empower parents, teachers, and community members to demand excellent public schools.
  • Advocate for effective local, state and national education policies and investments.

  • Ensure the policies and funding we advocate for reach classrooms and help students.

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