Watching the trailer for the recent documentary Waiting for Superman, about our floundering public school system, is enough to make a school-choice activist out of anyone:[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKTfaro96dg 635×355]
Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, says the movie is right to highlight the benefits of school choice, but that choice alone won’t fix the system:
Overpromising leads inevitably to disappointment. When it comes to raising test scores, the grail of most reformers, school choice’s record is still ambiguous. For every charter school success story like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP network — both touted in Guggenheim’s documentary — there’s a charter school where scores are worse than the public school status quo. The same is true for vouchers and merit pay: the jury is still out on whether either policy consistently raises academic performance.
This doesn’t mean that school choice doesn’t work, [AEI education scholar Frederick] Hess argues. It just means that the benefits are often more modest and incremental than many reformers want to think. They can be measured in money saved (both charter and private schools usually spend much less per pupil than their public competitors), in improved graduation rates, and in higher parental and student satisfaction. But they don’t always show up in test scores.
This insight leads to Hess’s second argument — that if reformers want to see more than modest academic improvements, they need to set more ambitious goals. The theory of school choice is the theory of the free market: monopoly breeds mediocrity, and more competition should make all the competitors improve. But in practice, even the more ambitious school choice experiments have protected the public school system from the rigors of real competition.
Read on to see what Hess and Douthat recommend. Something tells me the teachers’ unions won’t approve.