Opinion: K-12 Update

School Choice Gets a Boost

A high school diploma is a critical determinant of later vocational and life success. In our competitive global economy, kids who don’t graduate don’t stand a chance. Not only do high school dropouts face long odds when it comes to securing gainful employment, research shows they’re also at risk for a host of adverse outcomes, including poverty, single parenthood, and incarceration. Policymakers and school leaders around the country are acutely aware of this, and are pursuing widespread efforts to keep students in school.

How can we mitigate our dropout problem? There’s no easy answer; multiple factors influence a student’s decision to stay or go. But promising new data released Monday indicate that school choice may help keep kids on track to graduate.

The report, Graduation Rates for Choice and Public School Students in Milwaukee (PDF), published by School Choice Wisconsin and authored by Dr. John Robert Warren, found that students in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program (MPCP) graduated at rates about 10 points higher than students attending Milwaukee’s Public Schools (MPS) for three of the four years examined.

These findings are particularly noteworthy since Milwaukee’s voucher program targets economically disadvantaged children. Eligibility is based on family earnings: in order to qualify for admission in 2008-09, a child from a family of four must have a household income at or below $37,439. City public school students, on the other hand, comprise a more varied economic demographic, making the results even more compelling. “Given the well-documented relationship between socioeconomic background and high school completion rates,” says Dr. Warren, “we ought to observe lower high school completion rates among students in MPCP schools.” Yet they surpass their peers in the city system.

Dr. Warren’s findings also reinforce earlier data on Milwaukee’s initiative. In 2003, noted researcher Jay Greene found that Milwaukee choice students graduated at higher rates than did the city’s public school students. Other studies revealed that students in Milwaukee’s choice program outscored their public school counterparts on both math and reading tests.

What is it about choice that helps kids achieve and stay in school? The latest Milwaukee study doesn’t pinpoint specific factors. Certainly, though, there are many features of choice programs – an individualized approach to education, enhanced parental involvement, flexibility, competition – that likely benefit student performance. Longitudinal research currently underway through the School Choice Demonstration Project should amplify our understanding of cause and effect, delineating which aspects of choice programs impact student outcomes, and how.

The data clearly point to one thing, however: choice works for kids. As a result, leaders are pushing it as a promising reform, particularly for at-risk students. In his State of the Union Address Monday night, President Bush proposed “Pell Grants for Kids,” giving scholarships to poor children in low-performing schools, including “high schools with significant dropout rates.” While his initiative faces stiff opposition, it’s a powerful acknowledgment that low-income students need more options.

North Carolina’s leading school choice organization, Parents for Educational Freedom (PEFNC), characterizes choice as an effective way to combat (PDF) our state’s dropout crisis. PEFNC President Darrell Allison, on the cover of the current issue of the School Choice Advocate (PDF), says, “With one-third of students dropping out every year, more and more of our citizens realize we must take bold, innovative, aggressive action…the status quo of North Carolina’s education system is no longer acceptable.”

Is the time ripe for reform? Let’s hope so. Our current system relegates too many poor, inner-city students to failing schools, upping the likelihood of academic failure. Not only is this unwise, it’s also unjust. Choice – through scholarships or tax credits – would right this wrong, empowering disenfranchised families and giving at-risk students a second chance. And guess what? These kids just might decide to stay in school.