Consider the moral case for school choice

From the New York Times, one advocate of school choice has this to say about a new evaluation (PDF) of the nation’s largest school-voucher program for poor children, which found that schools who use the vouchers at private schools “tend to perform at levels roughly comparable to similarly income-disadvantaged students” in public schools.

As an advocate of school choice, all I can say is thank heavens for the Milwaukee results. Here’s why: If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason that school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

He’s right, of course: Parents do have different ideas of what their children should receive in an education. Some parents favor a traditional curriculum while others focus a more “progressive” one, for example. Non-poor parents have some leverage to select the schools they prefer–they can attempt to influence the administration, they can move, and in some cases, they can afford private school tuition. Poor families generally get ignored by public officials, and they usually don’t have the means to move or pay for private school. They should, as a matter of moral right, be able to exercise the same measure of choice as non-poor families do, or at the least, have more choice than they do. So yes, the moral component of school choice should not be undersold.

But back to performance for a minute. I notice the rest of the sentence from the report, which suggests that school choice is better for more than the children who attend the private schools. “We have displayed a rough and limited snapshot of the average performance of Choice students in certain grades that suggests they tend to perform at levels roughly comparable to similarly income-disadvantaged students in MPS and better than low-income students in urban areas across the U.S.” Just perhaps the theory of competition works, and as a result of competition, students in the Milwaukee Public Schools score as well as those in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and both groups score higher than the national average.

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