The Facts About School Choice

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
Font Size:

Last week, Steve Nelson of the Calhoun School in Manhattan penned a jeremiad against school choice, charter schools and private schools, including the one that signs his paycheck. The occasion? He received an email supporting National School Choice week.

School choice advocates fight for each family’s ability to choose the right education path for their child, whether that lie in a traditional public schools, publicly supported independent charter schools, vouchers for private schools, or homeschooling.

Underlying this is the ideal that no cookie cutter system can serve all students and that competition between systems encourages all to perform better.

Mostly Nelson complained about school choice supporters. He included Big Pharma and Grover Norquist, but forgot to mention a few names — including the head of his own state’s government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Last February, Cuomo met with school choice advocates and surprised them with warm support of their movement and shared concerns about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s hostility to educational choice.

But Cuomo’s support went beyond political cheerleading. He backed legislation giving New York City charter schools some of the most sweeping protections anywhere, outmaneuvering the city’s Democratic mayor at every turn.

Private school vouchers, especially for disadvantaged and minority students, open the doors of previously elite institutions — encouraging diversity and expanding opportunities. New York City’s voucher plan introduced under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani produced spectacular successes. Contrary to Nelson’s accusation that school choice reconstitutes segregation — statistics show that African-American students who used the vouchers went to college at almost 25 percent higher rates than those who did not.

Nelson also failed to mention Vincent Gray, mayor of Washington D.C. Although opposed to vouchers, Gray has partially embraced the idea that independent charter school competition improves the entire school system while providing opportunities for students now.

Stanford University researchers found that Washington D.C.’s independent charter schools collectively outperformed the traditional public system. Students got an equivalent of an extra half-year of educational time compared to traditional school counterparts.

Like many other cities, Washington D.C. has worked to ensure that minority and other disadvantaged students get charter school opportunities. As of last year, 43 percent of D.C. students attended charter schools.

Charter schools have also started to make a difference nationally. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder concluded that charter school students in 2013 performed higher in reading and slightly lower in math than traditional public school students.

Test scores measured between 2009 and 2013, however, indicated that charter schools as a whole improved at a faster rate than traditional public schools.

While Nelson sits at the pinnacle of the private school system, he never cites a study or fact that rebuts the growing evidence that many students of all races and backgrounds derive lifelong benefits from having expanded educational choices. Anti-corporate emotionalism and hazy theory trump real life success stories. Clearly in a politicized educational debate, students and facts take a back seat.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity