New Report Reviews Research on Educational Choice

I know this isn’t a “cool” thing to say, but I get really excited about new research. I eat up statistical analyses like most people eat donuts (I eat those, as well). But do you know what is way more exciting than a single new study on a fascinating education topic? A review of a whole bunch of tasty research.

Enter the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice’s new edition of “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” Written by Dr. Greg Forster, these reports are a great way to stay up to date with the latest research on educational choice. The last report was published in 2013, so this new edition brings a bunch of new information to the table.

Before we dive in, we should get something out of the way. I know some of you out there don’t like me, and that you are probably wrinkling your noses at the very mention of the Friedman Foundation. Obviously, you’re thinking, an organization whose sole purpose is to promote educational choice is too biased to be taken seriously. I take some issue with the idea that an organization that believes strongly in something can’t do good, objective work, but I know others are more pessimistic. Even those staunch cynics can stop frowning in this case; Friedman didn’t actually conduct any of the included analyses.

“Win-Win” is a literature review. “Lit reviews,” as nerds know them, are notably different from meta-studies like the one we covered recently in that they don’t analyze other studies’ findings. Instead, they simply list and report the results of existing studies that meet the reviewers’ criteria for inclusion. In the case of Dr. Forster’s review, those inclusion criteria are broad enough to scoop an impressively comprehensive list of empirical studies done in the area of choice, including all of the U.S. “gold-standard” random-assignment studies on the academic impacts of choice on participants. The analyses themselves were conducted by researchers at respected institutions like Harvard and the Brookings Institution.

With that pesky business out of the way, here’s a summary of the review’s key findings (straight from the executive summary):

  • Eighteen empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the gold standard of social science. Of those, 14 find choice improves student outcomes: six find all students benefit and eight find some benefit and some are not visibly affected. Two studies find no visible effect, and two studies find Louisiana’s voucher program—where most of the eligible private schools were scared away from the program by an expectation of hostile future action from regulators—had a negative effect.

  • Thirty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s effect on students’ academic outcomes in public schools. Of those, 31 find choice improved public schools. One finds no visible effect. One finds a negative effect.

  • Twenty-eight empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers and public schools. Of these, 25 find school choice programs save money. Three find the programs they study are revenue neutral. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.

  • Ten empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of those, nine find school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools, and one finds no net effect on segregation. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.

  • Eleven empirical studies have examined school choice’s effect on civic values and practices, such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of those, eight find school choice improves civic values and practices. Three find no visible effect from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative effect on civic values and practices.

Careful observers will note that this edition of “Win-Win” no longer asserts that no random-assignment study has ever found a negative academic outcome for choice participants. That omission is the result of depressingly negative findings in two new studies on Louisiana’s flawed voucher program, one of which we discussed in detail a while back. There are compelling theories for why the Louisiana voucher program in particular has failed to produce the desired results, so the negative findings aren’t all bad news. Rather, they offer valuable insight into the importance of thoughtful design and implementation.

Otherwise, though, educational choice is looking pretty darn good from an empirical perspective. The effects aren’t always huge, but the existing body of literature pretty strongly illustrates that those effects are typically positive. Despite one study finding (in a somewhat confusing way that even the study’s authors can’t really explain) a negative effect of choice on public schools, the overwhelming majority of research still shows that public education benefits from the presence of private educational choice programs. So much for “dismantling public education.”

There are some interesting methodological nuances buried down in the text of the report, and I encourage interested folks to dig deeper into the findings of each study—and into the analytic problems some of them created. “Win-Win” is as much an illuminating look at how to conduct high-quality educational choice studies as it is a review of studies already conducted. For now, though, this report is helpful piece of ammunition in the ongoing fight to expand choice for all students and a welcome reaffirmation of the work we happy choice warriors do every day.

See you next time!