The momentum for school choice is gaining steam. First, the U.S. Supreme Court found government-funded vouchers constitutional. Colorado recently enacted a school-choice law. President Bush has come out strongly in favor of a federal voucher program for Washington, D.C. Yet, despite these advances, school choice may be derailed not by the arguments of opponents, but by a type of argument used by supporters.
With the continuing inadequate performance of the public schools, it’s understandable that school-choice advocates have focused on empirical studies showing the improved achievement of students participating in various choice programs. There are pitfalls, however, with this emphasis on numbers.
If school-choice proponents rely too heavily on empirical studies, they risk painting themselves into a corner. For example, an influential 2002 study of a New York City private voucher program recently came under fire from noted Princeton professor Alan Krueger and the New York Times. The critics charged that the study’s conclusion, that African-American students participating in the choice program showed improved achievement, was erroneous because of methodological problems in the study. If these problems were corrected, said the critics, then no improvement occurred among the African-American students.
The critics may or may not be right. The authors of the New York study have just issued a rebuttal that appears persuasive. Yet, even if the study’s authors are right, the victory for choice supporters may be pyrrhic. Anti-choice forces are sure to use the debate over empirical results to muddy the waters. Indeed, the head of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, opposed President Bush’s support of a voucher for Washington, D.C. by saying that there’s no evidence that vouchers improve student performance. Muddy waters produce doubt among voters and lawmakers, making passage of choice programs less likely. That’s why it’s critical that choice advocates also emphasize the moral and philosophical case for choice.
Last year, the Roman Catholic bishops of New York State issued a pastoral letter strongly supporting choice in education. The bishops recognized that school choice may result in improved student academic achievement, but they said: “While a system of parental choice and school competition would have a positive effect in improving schools, this argument is besides the point. The purpose of a system of parental choice is to enable parents — all parents — to exercise their inherent right and responsibility to direct the upbringing and education of their children. Even if all schools were high performing, the rationale for a system of parental choice remains. The freedom to choose the education best suited for one’s children is a basic right of all parents, regardless of income.”
Further, the positive effects of choice may be manifested in qualitative rather than quantitative ways. The bishops observed that “government schools do not offer the kind of values, including religious values, sought by many parents as part of their children’s education.” Especially in poor inner-city areas, Catholic schools’ emphasis on values has resulted in better character education for children and safer learning environments.
Joseph Viteritti, professor of public administration at New York University and a thoughtful advocate of school choice, says that the market argument and the equity argument for choice are inextricably related. However, he says: “Of course, there are some skeptics who will continue to deny that competition, even unencumbered, with all the artificial constraints removed, will work to improve public education. I don’t share their cynicism. Even if they are wrong, but especially if they are right, the most compelling argument for choice remains a plea for fairness. We don’t need numbers to prove that.”
Empirical research is a very important supplement to the case for school choice. Remember, however, that the Berlin Wall fell because people responded to the moral appeal of freedom, not because of Pentagon figures on missile throw weights.
— Lance T. Izumi is director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.