The Obama Administration’s Parting Gift to School Choice

Jan 27, 2017 by AFP

Ask any parents who have exercised school choice to get their children out of a failing school, and they’ll tell you the same thing: their children’s futures were too precious to gamble on school improvements that never seemed to come. Opponents of school choice maintain that this mindset is part of the problem. Defenders of public education’s status quo complain that, for every student who departs a failing district school, the school loses funding – somehow making it impossible to bring the school up to standards. It seems, according to some, all that is necessary to fix a failing school is more funding.

For six years, the Obama administration tested this hypothesis. From 2010 through 2015, the administration sunk $7 billion into the School Improvement Grants program. This program is designed to pump targeted funding into failing schools across the nation. It has actually been in existence since the Bush administration, but the $7 billion spent by the Obama administration was the largest investment in that program – or any federal program targeting failing schools – in history. If a lack of funding was truly a major impediment to improving failing schools, an unprecedented investment should have resulted in an unprecedented improvement to the failing schools that received funding.

In reality, the federal government’s $7 billion investment appears to have done nothing at all, according to a report released in the last few days of the Obama administration. None of the major indicators of quality education outcomes – things like graduation rates, college enrollment, or even test scores – were affected by the influx of cash. Failing schools that received the grant money did not perform any better on these indicators than schools that did not receive the additional financial assistance.

In the marketplace, money is necessary to invest in researching, developing, and producing a quality product. But competition is the essential force making sure a business continues to offer high quality goods and services over time. Without a competitor to keep a business on its toes, quality suffers while prices continue to rise.

It was this element of competition that was absent from the Obama administration’s effort to improve failing schools. The School Improvement Grants program offered schools $2 million per year for three years if the school chose one of four options for reform. Half of the schools chose the least invasive option, the one that required the least effort, in order to obtain the extra funding. Without competition, all the schools needed to do was meet the bare minimum, without showing any actual results for their troubles, in exchange for a big bump in funding. And that was exactly what they did.

Though the Obama administration’s big bet on School Improvement Grants didn’t pan out, there is a policy that has shown results – steadily improving outcomes at district schools everywhere that the policy has been implemented. School Choice policies have consistently been getting results, both for choice participants and for local public schools affected by choice programs.

In the past two decades, 18 empirical, random-assignment studies (the gold standard of social science research) have been done on choice participants. 14 of the 18 studies found positive results for some or all participants, including improvements in graduation rates, math and reading scores, college enrollment, and even bachelor’s degree attainment. But even more surprising to some, choice programs led to better outcomes in local district schools as well. 33 empirical studies have been done evaluating how school choice programs affect outcomes at public schools. In 31 out of the 33 studies, researchers found that the presence of a school choice program improved education outcomes at affected district schools. The studies found that schools changed their institutional practices, resulting in improved test scores, when faced with the prospect of students being able to select another school.

The evidence is clear: choice and competition induce better education outcomes at lower costs, while unaccountable infusions of cash do not. When lawmakers examine the evidence on both of these approaches, they should find that there’s only one choice.