School Choice Alone Not Enough To Drive Improvements In Education

schoolbusEarlier in the week, the Washington Post published an article detailing the troubles that low-income communities have due to a lack of supermarkets and banking services. As Karen Dillon summed up, “despite a high number of customers and sufficient wealth to support large, full-service grocery stores and mainstream bank branches, many of these neighborhoods haven’t seen either in decades.” So the only options that residents of these communities have are overpriced corner stores and check cashing outlets that charge exorbitant fees.

According to a new report released by the Education Sector, the same problem is inherent in education. Conservatives like to claim that “choice” will be enough to reform the education system, and public schools will all be whipped into shape if a couple of charter schools open. Alas, the truth is not so simple:

Early advocates of school choice argued that increased choice would unleash market forces, including parental demand for good schools, entrepreneurial interest in building better schools, and competition among schools to serve students. Low-income, urban neighborhoods that have long suffered from low educational achievement, they said, would benefit the most from choice-based school reforms, as families wielded their new consumer power to drive improvements in their children’s education. But the past two decades of choice reforms have demonstrated that choice alone is insufficient to drive large-scale improvement. School districts have proven remarkably resistant to competitive pressure, parental demand has not culled poor-performing schools, and it is far more difficult to start and grow successful schools than originally envisioned.

The report found that while some charters in low-income communities have been very successful, many others simply fizzle, shut down, or are no better than their terrible public counterparts. This is an important point. It’s not enough to plunk down a charter school and say “there is a choice, therefore the work is done.” Deciding between two equally lousy choices isn’t really a choice at all.

The Education Sector advocates “establishing the informed demand necessary to support a market focused on school quality.” Indeed, unless people are well-informed enough to make an intelligent choice, the market simply doesn’t work. People don’t know what they are choosing between, and therefore true pressure to drive bad schools into oblivion doesn’t exist. And then far more must be done across the education spectrum, including expanding learning time and rethinking teacher pay and tenure policies. Only then will the education system start to get into the shape in which it needs to be.