Will this be the year school choice comes to Texas? For years, proposals to give parents control over their children’s education dollars failed just shy of the finish line. That might change in the 2023 legislative session. After decades of lackluster performance by the district-school monopoly, and especially its failures during the pandemic, most Texans are ready for change.
Enthusiasm for school choice now spans the political spectrum. New polling data reveals a majority of Texans support programs that provide public transferable education funding, such as vouchers. The political momentum is bolstered by what people are realizing across the country: school choice works. The evidence is mounting that it’s a win for both parents and students.
Let’s start with the studies that use “randomized controlled trials” as a research method. This sounds complicated, but the underlying logic is straightforward. We want studies that mimic a controlled experiment. We can’t just compare outcomes for families that use vouchers or education savings accounts with those that don’t. That’s because, on average, parents who care enough about their children’s education to enroll them in a school choice program are likely to be more conscientious and dedicated than other parents. This factor would bias the results–our assessment would depend too much on the strong family environment instead of the effects of the program itself.
Randomizing solves this problem. We can compare, among all students who apply for a school choice program, those who get in against those who don’t. Usually this happens through a lottery system, which many pilot programs and high-demand schools use. Students assigned by the lottery to a school choice program are the “treatment” group. Students not assigned by the lottery are the “control” group. Since the lottery is random, we can be confident that any measured result is due to the effectiveness of the school choice program rather than the effectiveness of parents.
So, does school choice improve education outcomes for students enrolled in these programs? Education scholars M. Danish Shakeel, Kaitlin P. Anderson, and Patrick J. Wolf argue the answer is yes. They surveyed 21 randomized controlled trials of voucher programs. Importantly, each one of those studies is its own experiment. Across the 21 experiments, they find “moderate evidence of positive achievement impacts of private school vouchers.”
But that’s not all. There’s also evidence that school choice improves education outcomes even within district schools. School choice programs force district schools to compete for students. They have to step up their game to keep up with private schools and charter schools that attract choice-empowered students, and they often do.
Because entire school districts can’t be randomly assigned to a treatment or control group, the studies exploring the link between school choice and district-school outcomes are not true experiments. But the research still uses careful controls to assess causality. Out of 28 studies that explore this question, 25 found that school choice improves educational attainment in traditional school systems. In terms of social-scientific validity, that’s a slam dunk.
Or look at other outcomes — financial consequences for taxpayers, racial segregation in the school system, parent satisfaction, civic values and practices, you name it. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies show school choice makes things better. Most research finds a positive effect; some research finds a null effect; very little research finds a negative effect.
On the whole, the evidence is clear: school choice delivers for families seeking the best education money can buy.
The Texas Constitution contains a noble goal: good schools for all children, regardless of their families’ financial means. We’ve tried a government-led approach for decades, but it isn’t working. Now we know that vouchers, education savings accounts, and other family-empowerment measures can improve our communities.
Researchers have done important work demonstrating, by any reasonable standard, that school choice works. Now it’s up to public servants to make it happen. By following the evidence, legislators can ensure that every young Texan can attend a safe, effective school.
Salter is an economics professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Opinion: The results are in: School choice works