Families & the Community

Scholars Outline Ways to Maximize Value of School Choice

February 07, 2006 6 min read
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From creating tradable “enrollment rights” to help integrate schools to providing parents with better school performance information, a new book that aims to stake out a middle ground in the debate over school choice offers ways to enhance the benefits while mitigating the risks.

Further information on how to purchase Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy is available from The Brookings Institution.

The collection of essays evolved from the deliberations of the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education, a panel convened by the Washington-based Brookings Institution in 2001 that sought to move beyond arguments over whether school choice is good or bad. Many, but not all, contributing authors were members of the commission, chaired by Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“[S]chool choice in the United States is here to stay and likely to grow,” co-editors Tom Loveless and Julian R. Betts write in the opening chapter. “In recent decades new forms of school choice have arisen that have fundamentally changed the education landscape.”

Mr. Loveless is the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, the think tank that published the new book. Mr. Betts is an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

“The market metaphor for school is actually fairly apt,” said Mr. Betts at a Jan. 26 Brookings event held here to discuss the book, Getting Choice Right:Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy. “We do have a market, like it or not.”

Selling Enrollment Rights

In one chapter, Mr. Betts looks closely at the economic theory underpinning choice.

“Even in a world of imperfect competition, it’s almost always better to have more competition than less competition,” he said at the event.

But Mr. Betts notes in his essay that the outcome of choice can be “quite inequitable or highly equitable,” depending on the policy design.

If designed appropriately, he maintains, a choice program can help level the playing field for low-income families.

“Two ways of achieving this in some part are either to set geographic or other quotas for each school’s student body or to use more sophisticated market mechanisms that force schools in more affluent areas to compensate schools in less affluent areas for the right to enroll above-average shares of high-achieving students,” he writes.

Mr. Betts says the latter approach is not new to public policy, noting the practice by U.S. companies of trading air-pollution rights.

“[I]magine a system in which each school is granted rights to enroll a fixed percentage of students with very high achievement,” he writes. “These rights would be individually tradable among schools.”

The idea is that a district, for instance, would determine an average number of high-achieving students. Schools with more than their share could enroll additional low-achieving students or buy permits from a school that had an excess of low achievers.

“The beauty of the idea is that when an inner-city school sells a right to enroll a high-achieving student, it banks the money,” Mr. Betts says in the book. “In practice, what would likely result is that most suburban schools would opt to accept more low-achieving students from elsewhere while sacrificing some funding to pay for the right to continue to enroll an above-average percentage of high-achieving students.”

Promoting Good Choices

In another chapter, two researchers—Laura S. Hamilton at the RAND Corp., a think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., and Kacey Guin from the University of Washington in Seattle—examine how families choose schools. The studies they surveyed reveal a lot of consistency in what parents say they value most in a school, with measures of academic quality as a primary gauge.

Policies of Choice

Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy, a new volume of essays, suggests ways to better design school choice policies to benefit both students whose families actively exercise choice and those who don’t.


  • Require private schools participating in choice programs to meet the testing and reporting provisions that public schools must meet.

  • Provide accessible school performance information that addresses the variety of attributes that parents say matter to them, not just test scores.
  • Create a formal mechanism that asks parents to articulate reasons for deciding to remove their children from public schools, and make sure the schools receive the information.
  • Reduce funding for schools by an amount that increases over time. In the short run, schools could spend more on remaining students, but would face increasingly severe financial penalties if they failed to staunch the outflow of students.
  • Equity

    • Encourage racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic integration by regulating admission to schools of choice or by providing incentives. For instance, schools with enrollments that reach specified diversity targets could earn bonuses.

  • Target vouchers to low-income students to help improve integration in private schools.
  • Prohibit any choice system from selecting students on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious belief.
  • Devote systematic attention and resources to the needs of students whose families do not actively exercise choice. For example, assign high-quality teachers to schools serving large numbers of such children.
  • Resources

    • Raise the amount of public funding for charter schools and vouchers to increase the supply of schools of choice.

  • Guarantee public transportation to schools of choice, both to encourage start-up schools and to allow parents wider schooling options outside their neighborhoods. Have districts lease existing buildings to other providers.
  • Create a “tradable market” in school “enrollment rights.” Each school could enroll a certain percentage of students with very high achievement, for instance, and would have to pay into a fund if the school exceeded the limit. That money would go to schools serving far fewer high-achieving students.
  • SOURCE: The Brookings Institution

    The authors caution, however, that this may not tell the whole story.

    “School demographics matter a lot more to parents’ choices than they typically will admit,” Ms. Hamilton said at the Jan. 26 event.

    To promote “good choice behavior,” the two researchers suggest several steps policymakers may pursue. For one, they suggest making information for families and others more accessible and comprehensive.

    “Information on school performance should be presented in a format that is easily understood and that addresses the variety of attributes that parents say matter to them,” they write, emphasizing that most parents believe school quality means more than simply getting test-score data.

    The two researchers also suggest subjecting private schools participating in choice programs to the same testing and reporting provisions that public schools must meet.

    Mr. Loveless and Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, suggest in another chapter that there is little research to reveal how choice programs may have harmed or benefited students.

    “A curious vacuum exists at the heart of the research on school choice,” they write. “Even as researchers seek to determine whether choice-based schools … educate children more effectively than conventional public schools, remarkably scant attention is given to the mechanisms producing these effects.”

    Brian P. Gill, a RAND researcher, focuses one essay on choice and integration of students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

    “Choice may affect integration in complicated ways,” he writes.

    Mr. Gill suggests that integration might be addressed by direct regulation or incentives, such as providing bonuses to schools with enrollments that reach specified diversity targets.

    Mr. Gill also emphasizes the importance of providing free transportation.

    “Policies that provide transportation funding are more likely to be usable by low-income families and more likely to promote integration,” he writes.

    A chapter on the racial makeup of Michigan charter schools found that their composition was not dramatically different from that of regular public schools. Charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent, are more likely, however, to locate in districts where black and Hispanic students are more isolated from white students.

    Unintended Consequences

    Author Karen E. Ross of RAND says the upside of that situation is that minority families are getting more educational options. The downside is that “in districts with high proportions of students in charter schools, several forms of public school segregation have been exacerbated.”

    “Good intentions seem to be having some unintended negative consequences,” she writes.

    In the final essay, Patrick J. Wolf, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University in Washington, finds from a review of available research that, contrary to the contentions of some critics, schools of choice appear to do as well as or better than traditional public schools in instilling civic values to prepare students for democratic life.

    “The statistical record thus far suggests that private schooling and school choice rarely harms and often enhances the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy,” Mr. Wolf writes.

    Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, and a one-time education adviser to President Clinton, praised the work of the choice commission and the new book in an interview.

    “It’s an issue that gets a lot of unserious attention,” he said of school choice, “and this is some serious attention.”

    “Choice is a powerful force in American society,” he added. “Fighting against it is akin to fighting against gravity. So they took the productive tack of examining the pros and cons of choice and questions about how do you manage it to further the public good.”


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