School Choice to Blame?

August 20, 2015

Inside Insight

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WHAT ‘UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES’?

The Charleston Post and Courier has begun a five-part series on students “left” in a North Charleston school. The series, accompanied by a video on the newspaper’s website, bears the abrasive title “Left Behind: The Unintended Consequences of School Choice.”

The premise behind the series is roughly this: that charter schools and magnet schools – the extent of what the series terms “school choice” – have “beckon the brightest and most motivated” students, and so leave schools like North Charleston High with the “at risk” students.

The series deals mostly with the lives of a few young people stuck for a variety of reasons at North Charleston High, and these stories are moving in their way. But it’s totally unclear how their stories illustrate “unintended consequences” of school choice policies. The series is not a policy-oriented argument against school choice programs, and its writers acknowledge that many families have been helped by them, but its premise is both clear and problematic.

Here are three general problems with it.

(a) South Carolina’s “school choice” policies are severely limited. Indeed, for all the talk about school choice over the last 15 years in the General Assembly, hardly anything has changed during that period. Apart from a recent law benefitting special needs students, there is no voucher or scholarship program – i.e. the kind of program typically meant when we speak of “school choice.” Permission to attend districts other than the one in which the student lives are similarly extremely difficult to get.

(b) There is no evidence that the departure of “bright” and “motivated” students from a “bad” school has any negative effect on the students who remain. Those who remain have problems – and the Post and Courier series highlights those problems in detail – but there is no evidence that those problems would be any different if it weren’t for South Carolina’s barely significant “school choice” programs. To put it differently: The series references “unintended consequences,” but the consequences it reveals have nothing to do with school choice.

(c) Assuming some bright students leave a school (and remember: many parents move their children to a different school precisely because they’re failing or experiencing behavioral problems), that dynamic may lower the school’s overall scores. But that in itself is not a reason to deny some students the ability to go elsewhere. The point of public education is to educate children, not to preserve the status or ranking of certain institutions.

(d) School choice programs have improved performance wherever they’ve been tried. A series on school choice, even one dealing primarily with individual students, should deal with this body of evidence.

And (e) if limited school choice programs have helped some students but not others, surely the response should be to expand school choice policies rather than blame them.

In short, the series is an excellent argument for widening school choice policies, but for some reason it’s framed as the opposite. This is a mystery.