Fighting for Equity in Education

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School Choice Has Failed

Thursday March 2, 2017

School choice has failed according to leading US expert, Henry Levin, Professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University in New York. He says that school choice hasn’t improved student performance in schools around the world where it has been implemented. Instead it has led to the systematic segregation of students by ethnicity, social class and religion.

Levin says that there is very little evidence to support the claim of choice and voucher advocates that competitive incentives induced by school choice will lead to better educational outcomes:

Sweden has had an educational voucher system since 1992, but its achievement levels on international tests have been falling for two decades. Chile has had such a system since 1980, and there is little evidence of improvement in achievement relative to countries at similar levels of income. Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the District of Columbia have issued vouchers to low-income families, but sophisticated evaluations find no difference between achievement in private voucher schools and public schools with similar student populations. Students from low-income families in Louisiana who have used vouchers to shift from public to private schools have experienced striking reductions in achievement gains relative to similar students in public schools.

He also notes that the dramatic shift to academy schools in England has failed to lift student achievement. Likewise, careful statistical comparisons show no distinct advantage in student achievement by charter schools compared to traditional public schools in the United States.

Instead, he says, “school choice tends to streamline the racial, social class and ethnic isolation of students, as well as separate them by political ideology and religion”.

Sweden’s vouchers have increased segregation by social class and immigrant status. Chile’s voucher system has produced one of the most segregated system of schools in the world by family income. In the Netherlands, studies of the school choice system have pointed to school separation of students by ethnicity, immigrant status and family income.

Levin notes that a recent study by the Brookings Institute in the US found that charter schools are more segregated racially and socio-economically than public schools in surrounding areas. It concluded that charter schools are generally more racially and economically segregated than traditional public schools and are more likely to be at one extreme or the other of racial and economic composition than traditional public schools.

In addition, evidence from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment also shows that school choice is associated with social segregation of students.

Levin concludes that there is a tension between unfettered school choice as a goal and a common educational experience that will ensure students are prepared for the demands of a democratic society. While families have the right to make their own choices, “universal school choice will undermine a shared experience and further exacerbate conflict and social division”.

He says, the issue is how to balance the quest for school choice with the provision of an education that ensures that all young people have the shared values and knowledge necessary for an effective democracy.

Trevor Cobbold


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