For this observer, the most puzzling aspect of the school choice debate has been the constant focus of my old friends, the “voucher right,” on comparative test score as the principal criterion of education policy. These descendants of Milton Friedman are, of course, quite correct (contra The New York Times) that those schools freely chosen by parents have, in nearly all serious studies, produced scores a bit superior to those recorded in the assigned schools that these children left behind. The differences are fairly small, but relatively constant in statistical terms – even after adding some recent findings into the mix.
The teachers unions and their allies sometimes respond that the emigres from the public sector are generally the more gifted children, hence better test-takers. The empirical evidence on this issue does not settle the matter one way or the other. My own experience and judgment suggest that the worried parents of low performers who are stuck in their “public” schools are common seekers of change. In any case, if there is a difference here in mobility twixt the bright and the dull, it is relatively small either way. The kids who transfer appear pretty much a duke’s mixture of testing talent; this empirical question will and should remain an issue, but, even if the unions prove correct, this might suggest only that parents of struggling children need a bit more information and inspiration toward free choice.
The free-market folks have, from the beginning, made test scores their spear point – their best case for choice. Paradoxically, the unions have done the same in their opposition. If the political debate were to be reduced to relative performance on tests, the union position might prove the more politically prudent. The magnitude of differences in scores might be insufficient to make basic reform appear truly exigent. In that event, we would, of course, remain grateful to the market-centered folk for having established this one advantage peculiar to parental choice, however small. At very least, it makes clear that, given a legal structure ensuring free access for the poor, no harm to learning itself is likely, and at least some gains seem probable. Continue Reading →