Home > Uncategorized > This Just In: School Choice Doesn’t Work if Students Can’t Enroll in Affluent Schools

This Just In: School Choice Doesn’t Work if Students Can’t Enroll in Affluent Schools

September 20, 2015

A recent “Education By The Numbers” essay by Jill Barshay in Hechinger Report provided an overview of the findings of a recent study conducted by NYU sociologists titled “Choice, Information, Constrained Options: School Transfers in a Stratified Education System.” The study examined the effects of implementing a voice system in Chicago public schools and came to the conclusion that parents whose children attend “failing schools” chose to keep their children in those schools. Why?

“The reason is geography,” said Peter M. Rich, one of the study’s coauthors and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. “The low-performing schools are clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods in the South and West Side of Chicago. They have fewer nearby options to choose from.”

Given the choice of commuting a long way to a high-performing school on the other side of town and transferring to a school in the neighborhood, low-income parents tend to choose the latter. Time-consuming travel is impractical for students with working parents. And no one wants to send elementary school children on public transportation by themselves through crime-ridden neighborhoods. But the choices closer to home are often little, if at all, better than poor students’ current schools…

The overall lesson is that school choice policies that don’t provide transportation or, perhaps, housing subsidies for families to move to higher-income neighborhoods aren’t going to equalize educational opportunities,” Rich concluded.

Milton Friedman, who is the father of school choice, viewed schools as commodities that should be subjected to market forces instead of being a “government monopoly”. He envisioned public school enrollment to be analogous to college enrollment. Informed students and parents could use publicly funded vouchers to attend the school of their choice and schools, in turn, would market themselves to attract students in a form that would garner the most profit. It is an idea that seems reasonable and logical to an economist, especially one who believes in unregulated capitalism like Friedman. But in the real world of sociologists it just doesn’t pan out. Why?

Rich found that the low-performing schools were overwhelmingly filled with poor students, 93 percent of whom qualified for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The few non-poor students at these schools were more likely to transfer, and even more likely to leave Chicago or the public school system altogether. Overall, 84 percent of all students attending a school on the probation list were black, even though black students make up only 54 percent of the total student population in Chicago. Another 15 percent of students in probation schools were Latino, while almost none were Asian or white.

Choice advocates are undeterred by these findings, though:

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative advocacy group that promotes school choice, praised the study’s methodology, and said he wasn’t surprised that public school choice had failed to produce benefits in Chicago. “In an area that has struggled a long time, there aren’t many good public school choices,” Butcher said. “Just by telling families they can leave, if there are not other things happening to improve the supply, families will have few options.”

For school choice to work, Butcher said, policymakers should give families vouchers to attend private schools, and allow more charter schools to open. He also argues that low-performing schools should be shut down.

NYU researcher Rich contradicts this rebuttal, noting that Chicago has had an open enrollment program for  students attending low performing schools for nearly two decades and it hasn’t made any difference in attendance patterns. He also notes that claims about the effectiveness of charter schools in Chicago are difficult to support, point out that while charters did have somewhat higher scores there were other changes going on that could impact any analysis.

…testing policies were simultaneously changing. Teachers were newly accountable for their student test scores and were using more classroom time to prepare for tests. Both third grade and eighth grade students had to hit minimum test scores to avoid repeating a school year.

Barshay concludes that because it is difficult to disentangle test results from other changes this study s not a condemnation of school choice, but

…it does show that having the freedom to choose and information on school quality aren’t enough. The educational marketplace doesn’t work when poor residents live far away from the neighborhoods with better schools. It’s the old saw:  location, location, location.

Barshay is missing one important point in this analysis: school choice cannot work when poor residents who live close to neighborhoods with better schools are not able to attend those schools because the nearby schools are in different districts or attendance zones. Location DOES matter… and if choice cannot facilitate the attendance of students into schools that provide more services because they receive better funding then most parents of children raised in poverty really have no choice at all.

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