How can school choice improve educational outcomes for students? To answer this long-debated question, Rodney Ogawa and Jo Sargent Dutton examine five underlying assumptions of how choice is expected to change the educational landscape by reviewing the current research pertaining to each assumption. The main takeaway of the piece is that there is no takeaway, due to a lack (at the time of writing) of school choice programs and evaluative research about the programs that did exist at the time.
Types of Magnet Schools
Ogawa and Dutton begin by presenting a summary of the four main types of choice programs in the United States: magnet schools, charter schools, inter-district transfer programs, and public/private voucher programs. These programs differ mainly on who in the school’s organizational structure holds the power, with some variation in the types of curricula offered. With magnet schools, the school is part of the public school district, and as such control remains mostly with central authorities in the district. Magnet school curricula are usually focused around a specific theme, such as performing arts, or science and engineering. Charter schools, which are generally very similar to magnet schools in terms of having specific themes and drawing students from the whole district, are usually not as heavily regulated by district standards as other public schools, which gives authorities within the institution such as principals and teachers more governing power over the school. Inter-district transfer programs, which allow students to attend schools outside their district, were too rare at the time to be evaluated effectively. The final type of choice program involves providing public school students with vouchers to attend participating private schools at reduced or no cost. A large-scale example of this fourth type of program did not exist at the time the study was completed, and as such Ogawa and Dutton had little to say about power structures and curricula in these schools.
Assumptions about Choice as a Reform Strategy
The bulk of the remainder of the article is dedicated to spelling out the five main assumptions about why choice programs might improve educational outcomes for students, and how current research (as of 1994) supports (or does not support) those assumptions.
Assumption 1: Parents will choose the school they feel best fits their child’s needs. Choice programs give low- and middle-income families more opportunities, and many different types of schools will be needed to fit the needs of many different types of students.
Assessment: Studies of educational choice behavior of parents indicate that parents with high levels of education and dissatisfaction with their child’s current schooling tend to be the most likely to exercise choice options. All five of the studies under consideration found that the second corollary of this assumption does not hold true, as better educated families (which usually have higher incomes) were more likely to know about choice options. Ogawa and Dutton conclude that “not all parents choose to make a choice,” which does not support this first assumption (282). Also, parents choose schools for their children based on different criteria. Educational quality is the most cited factor in choosing schools, but several other factors such as financial concerns, convenience, and desire for religious instruction also appear in various contexts in this research.
Assumption 2: If school freedom increases, so, too, does school responsiveness to parental input. Schools will adjust their curricula to better suit student needs, creating a number of diverse programs. By placing more power with the schools, centralized bureaucracy will decrease.
Assessment: Choice schools do indeed develop specifically-focused programs such as cultural themes or particular programs of study. However, simply stating a theme did not necessarily have an impact on curriculum structure. In one study, private schools, in particular, were virtually indistinguishable from public schools because of curriculum restrictions such as a requirement of a sequential, progressive curriculum in subjects like math, language arts, and social science. Research on choice effects on centralized bureaucracy is inconclusive.
Research on the remaining three assumptions—that (3) choice increases motivation in parents, students, and teachers, (4) parental choice increases educational outcomes, and (5) parental choice decreases costs of providing educational services—ranges from inconclusive to non-existent.
Ogawa and Dutton conclude that at the time of writing, choice literature is too limited to yield any substantial conclusions. The authors argue that more evidence is needed so that policy debates on this subject can be based in evidence rather than conjecture. They also point out that what little research there is fails to examine the invisible role that non-choosing parents play in the whole school choice process, and these parents, according to some, have the most to lose if choice programs become widespread.
Ideas to Consider
The main idea of this piece—that school choice debates should be supported by empirical evidence culled from current school choice programs—is certainly sound, and Ogawa and Dutton should be lauded for attempting this project at a time when so little research had been done on the subject. That being said, the current discourse on school choice could greatly benefit from an updated version of this article that examines the assumptions presented above in light of the recent expansion of school choice in the United States. Choice programs have become much more common in the intervening twenty years since the publication of this article, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting 2.1 million students enrolled in charter schools and 2.4 million students enrolled in magnet schools in 2012-2013 (NCES 2014). (In contrast, the enrollment for these school types were so low in the early 1990s that the NCES did not even collect data on them.) Additionally, as of 2015, thirteen states and the District of Columbia have created state-sponsored private school voucher programs which could provide data that was completely nonexistent during Ogawa and Dutton’s study period (NCSL 2014). As the popularity of these programs continues to grow, updated research on their efficacy will be more important than ever for both parents and policy makers.
National Conference of State Legislatures. 2014. “School Voucher Laws: State-by-State Comparison.” Retrieved Nov. 2, 2015 (http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/voucher-law-comparison.aspx).
U.S. Department of Education. 2015. Digest of Education Statistics 2014. National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. Retrieved Nov. 2, 2015 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_216.20.asp).