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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is School Choice a Revolving Door?

By Guest Blogger — February 10, 2016 5 min read

Note: Joshua Cowen, an Associate Professor of Education Policy in the College of Education at Michigan State University, joins us this week as a guest blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshcowenMSU.

Yesterday I made some comments about variation in voucher-accepting private school quality. Today, I want to continue the school choice theme first by mentioning another type of program, inter-district choice within the traditional public sector, and using that hook to make a general case for thinking of school choice as a more transient activity than what I think both supporters and opponents sometimes have in mind.

In a report released last summer, I looked at such a program in Michigan, where more than 100,000 students currently learn in traditional public schools outside their district of residence. My co-authors and I found that African American students, lower income students, and students who score comparably lower on state tests than their peers in their residential school districts are most likely to exit for a new district. But these statewide trends masked important differences between local districts. In districts with lower levels of academic achievement—as well as those with high proportions of African American children—it was actually the higher testing students and those who are white who tend to leave for surrounding districts. In other words, historically disadvantaged children appear to be leaving typical or more advantaged schools, while students who are comparably better off appear to be exiting districts that may be struggling.

I argued at the time that those patterns provided interesting indicators of how an understudied but very common type of choice policy work. But that’s not why I’m revisiting the report today. The more important question we considered—and one that is too often ignored in choice debates—is whether the choices of those students we examined really represented long-term steps away from a default schooling option. Which students stay in choice settings, and who those students are, are questions that have received far less attention than the matter of who selects such options in the first place. When the question is asked, it tends to be focused on specific concerns, such as certain schools pushing out certain tough-to-teach students, as evidenced this fall when news broke of the “Got to Go” list at the Success Academy charter school in New York. But that’s not the only reason to think about exits from choice programs. Simply put, it’s worth knowing whether choosing a school is something parents do once or many times over the course of their kids’ academic careers. We should also know who is especially prone to repeated moves.

In Michigan, we found that students most likely to exit their residential districts overall are those also most likely to leave their new districts as well—likely moving back to where they came from in the first place. Only 40 percent of the students we examined made use of the open enrollment program for the duration of their elementary school careers; for African Americans, that number was even lower, with less than a third staying in the program from kindergarten through fifth grade. Similar patterns have emerged in research out of Colorado, where black children in particular were highly mobile between school districts. Although the overall impact of transferring between school districts on student outcomes is not clear—only a handful of studies have been able to study the question—we do know that more general forms of mobility between public schools can generally have adverse effects on achievement, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

“Who chooses” school choice is a hotly contested question, largely because of the implications of the answer for who benefits and who may be adversely affected by these programs. But our research suggests that “who stays” may be as important a question as school choice—whether in the form of open enrollment, charter schooling, or school vouchers—expands nationwide. Indeed, our findings in Michigan echoed earlier work on which I collaborated in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, our team found that African Americans and students with lower test scores were those most likely to exit the city’s voucher program to return to public schools—just as similar students were more likely to give up their vouchers years earlier in a major study of a privately funded program in New York City. Among the Milwaukee students, the available evidence we had strongly suggested that test scores actually went up once they re-entered public schools. It is worth noting that despite the anecdotal headlines concerning Success Academy, the link between student background and mobility is less clear for charter schools as a whole.

It is possible that higher rates of mobility out of other choice programs among disadvantaged children are simply the result of families sorting between schools repeatedly until they find a proper match. More to the point, parents select schools for any number of reasons. In New Orleans, for example, where parents can choose between charter, private and a few traditional public schools, we know that academic results are only one of many factors considered by the city’s predominantly poor, minority population. Other factors such as the availability of arts, sports, transportation or after school care may also attract parents to a school other than the one nearest their home. We should also remember that changing employment, economic, or family circumstances in parents’ lives also play a role in determining where they enroll their children. Because of that, one under-appreciated benefit to increased choice may be that it doesn’t consign kids to one school forever if other parts of their lives change.

These possibilities aside, if school choice is a temporary or repeated activity—as our work appears to indicate for many children in Michigan and Wisconsin—then policymakers should consider whether it is enough to simply provide new alternatives to those who need them the most. Doing more to ensure that, upon making a choice, parents are ultimately able to find a stable learning environment that suits the particular needs of their children is necessary for school choice policy to reach its full potential in the future.

--Joshua Cowen

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.