The Evidence Mounts: Choice Schools Work Better Than Public Schools

School choice in the United States has expanded greatly over the past few decades, explains Herbert Walberg, fellow at the Hoover Institution. Charter schools already number nearly 6,000 in the 40 states that permit them, and tuition tax credits, which allow parents to deduct private school tuition from state income taxes, are growing in over 13 states.

A vast body of research indicates that "choice schools" -- both charter and private schools -- excel across the board in achievement, parental satisfaction and student social engagement.

  • A 2013 study from the Mathematica Policy Research Group analyzing the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) -- a network of charter schools operating in 20 states -- found that KIPP students were 11 months ahead of their public school counterparts in math, eight months ahead in reading and 14 months ahead in science after just three years in the charter program.
  • Moreover, the average private school operates at half the cost of its public school peers.

With such high levels of spending, why do public schools have such poor achievement? Walberg explains that the public school system has morphed into an increasingly large, and poorly-managed, bureaucracy.

  • Early public schools were locally funded and controlled, and districts were small. In 1900, there were 115,000 small school districts. Today, there are 15,000 much larger districts, and many school boards are uninformed about the schools within their jurisdiction.
  • Since 1900, states began paying increasingly larger portions of school costs -- today, states tend to pay half of their schools' costs. With increased funding came new rules and state-mandated regulations, reducing local control. Additional federal funding led to further regulations.

Choice schools, on the other hand, do not have these problems. While large school sizes tend to alienate students, choice schools are much smaller, and parents, students and staff are more likely to know each other. They generally have well-informed governing boards and operate free of dysfunctional state and federal regulations.

Notably, choice schools can hire their teachers based on their own criteria -- such as advanced study and experience -- not the criteria used by public schools, which look at the number of education courses completed. Moreover, Walberg writes, choice schools pay teachers based on their performance, and teachers who do not perform are likely to be fired.

Source: Herbert Walberg, "Expanding the Options," Education Next, May 15, 2014.

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