Advocates React Angrily to Study Questioning Merits of Choice

By Lynn Olson — November 04, 1992 6 min read

School-choice advocates last week lashed out at a widely publicized new report that raises questions about the merits of programs allowing parents to choose among schools for their children.

The report uses flawed methods and data and exhibits a distinct anti-choice bias, these critics contend.

Written by Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “School Choice’’ praises some districtwide choice programs. But it argues that statewide plans have failed to demonstrate any educational impact and could increase the disparities among districts. It also concludes that most public school parents have little desire for choice and that those who exercise school-choice options typically do so for nonacademic reasons. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1992.)

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who supports choice plans that include private schools, suggested that the report, intentionally or not, heralds “a kind of backlash, or nip-in-the-bud stance, toward choice and toward privatization’’ in schooling.

“I rather suspect that both of those radical strategies, which have incurred the wrath of the education establishment, will be the object of ‘Let’s stop them before they spread’ tactics,’' Mr. Finn said.

The criticism that the report unleashed shows just how heated the debate about school choice has become, particularly in an election year. President Bush has made private school choice a cornerstone of his education-reform plan, while Gov. Bill Clinton favors choice only within the public system.

‘A Real Smear Job’

Most of the critiques last week came from scholars and educators who are long-time supporters of the school-choice concept.

The report is “a real smear job,’' said Terry M. Moe, the co-author, with John E. Chubb, of a 1990 book published by the Brookings Institution that helped energize the movement for a market-driven system of American schooling.

“I think it’s grossly unfair and basically an effort to forward their own agenda,’' Mr. Moe said. “They put the most negative possible interpretation on every aspect of the evidence.’'

And Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, claimed he had found “64 significant misstatements of fact or distortions in one chapter.’'

But Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that last month sponsored a symposium on choice, said the report “confirms what most people who’ve studied the issue have observed. And that is that there’s no reason to believe that choice in itself will be a force for improving schools.’'

“The analogy to the market doesn’t apply,’' he argued. “Parents are not going to choose schools the way they choose toothpaste.’'

Mr. Boyer defended his report as a balanced study of the pros and cons of the choice movement to date.

“This is a report that praises choice when the conditions are right,’' he said. “It’s not an anti-choice report.’'

“We did our very best to discover evidence from all the sources that we knew, and that we thought were reliable,’' he said. “There may be some data that we didn’t discover, but that was not intended slanting.’'

Wording of Poll

Some of the most vociferous criticism of the report centers on the wording used to poll 1,000 Americans about their opinions on school choice.

The pollsters said: “Please imagine two people having a discussion on how to improve the public schools in this country. Mr. Smith says: The best way to improve education is to focus directly on supporting neighborhood schools, giving every school the resources needed to achieve excellence. Mr. Jones says: The best way to improve education is to let schools compete with each other for students. Quality schools would be further strengthened and weak schools would improve or close. Who are you more likely to agree with, Mr. Smith who would support every neighborhood school or Mr. Jones who would let schools compete for students?’'

Joyce McCray, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, said, “The questions have been phrased in such a way that they really do get the answer that they wanted.’'

But Mr. Boyer defended the wording of the question, saying that both the foundation and the polling firm--the Wirthlin Group of McLean, Va., which is best known for its work for Republican candidates--spent hours trying to phrase the policy options “in the most neutral way.’'

‘If there is any way for anyone to phrase that better,’' he offered, “we’ll run the question again ... at our own expense.’'

A ‘Straw Man’?

Critics also accused the report of setting up a “straw man’’ by implying, they said, that advocates of school choice believe that choice would, by itself, solve all the problems in education.

“Nobody seriously thinks that all you have to do to the school system is to put a choice program in place and that would revolutionize things,’' said Leslie Lenkowsky, the president of the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. “It’s really setting up a straw man and shooting it down.’'

In fact, chapter one of the report notes that choice advocates differ on whether they view the strategy as a sole solution for improving schools. But in chapter six, Mr. Boyer writes that “our examination of the choice ‘landscape’ ... leads us to conclude that this strategy alone will not result in widespread school improvement.’'

Henry M. Levin, a professor of higher education at Stanford University, last week described the Carnegie report as an “antidote’’ to earlier studies that have advocated choice.

“There has been an awful lot of squelching of the bad news, mediocre news regarding choice claims,’' he argued. “Now, here are people who have not looked at one data source, but they’ve looked at a lot of different choice schemes. And when you put all of the evidence together, it’s very difficult to make wild claims about [choice] being the solution.’'

Use of Minnesota Study

But others argued that the Carnegie report is guilty of its own omissions or misrepresentation of data.

Mr. Nathan, for instance, pointed to specific examples related to Minnesota’s choice plans.

The report cites a 1990 study by the Minnesota House of Representatives as evidence that families who participated in the state’s open-enrollment program in 1989-90 selected schools on the basis of convenience, rather than academics.

But that report has been widely criticized within the state. Tim Mazzoni, a professor of educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota, pointed out that the study was based on the applications submitted by students, who were not required to give a reason for why they wanted to participate. Only 40 percent of the applications--or 1,243--included a rationale. Researchers then categorized 1,547 different, open-ended responses, since some students gave more than one reason.

A separate study of Minnesota’s open-enrollment program during the same time period, released last week by Policy Studies Associates Inc. of Washington, found that parents identified a school’s academic reputation as the single most important reason for choosing a school. (See related story, this page.)

‘We Just Don’t Know’

In another instance, the report uses 1989 as the baseline year for determining whether the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in Minnesota has increased since the introduction of school choice, and concludes that the increase has been slight. But Mr. Nathan pointed out that the state’s postsecondary-enrollment-options program, which allows high school students to enroll full or part time in college at state expense, began in 1984-85. The number of A.P. courses offered since that time has more than doubled, he said.

Whatever the questions about the Carnegie report, most scholars say that the research about choice so far is inconclusive.

“In the sense of the available empirical evidence--the adequacy of it--the truth of the matter is we just don’t know,’' said Anthony S. Bryk, the director of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago. “There’s basically nothing in the U.S. that comes close to a full-blown choice plan.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 1992 edition of Education Week as Advocates React Angrily to Study Questioning Merits of Choice