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Study: Schools of choice don't improve test scores

There is no academic benefit to Michigan’s popular school of choice program.

Almost 100,000 children – roughly 1-in-16 students in the state’s K-12 system – attend classes in a traditional public school system outside their neighborhood school district. A first-of-its-kind study by education researchers at Michigan State University found that, on average, those students fare no better on state standardized tests than similar students who stay in their home districts.

The study emerges at a time when the shape of Michigan’s public education system is being re-envisioned. Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled a “21st Century Education Commission” last week charged with examining high-performing school systems around the nation and making recommendations to revamp Michigan’s struggling schools. A prominent member of that commission pounced on the study as a reason to rein in school choice.

“Unrestrained choice is an unmitigated disaster for Michigan,” said State Education Board President John Austin. “Cross-district choice is less about learning than about competing for students and money.”

School choice advocates vehemently disagree, noting that there are many reasons beyond test scores that families choose to move their children to other districts, such as perceived safety or social issues involving their children.

But the study is likely to renew debate over the state’s broad school-of-choice policy, which traces its roots to 1994 as part of the Prop A reform in school finance. School districts were given the option of allowing students in nearby districts to enroll in their schools. The same policy change allowed the creation of charter schools.

You can see Michigan’s school of choice policy here.

More than 80 percent of traditional public school districts now accept at least some school-of-choice transfers, though some put caps on the number of students accepted.

Charter schools, where about 136,000 Michigan students now attend classes, have received a lot of research attention, but little notice has been paid to the 100,000 students who move from one traditional public school district to another (The MSU study did not evaluate students who choose to attend charters over their home districts).

School of choice has given families freedom to enroll their children where they want, but critics note that the program has also wreaked havoc on district budgets, as districts lose at least $7,176 in state funding for every neighborhood student who decides to take classes in another district.

‘No discernable difference’

The records of nearly 3 million Michigan public school students between 2005-06 and 2012-13 were analyzed in the study, conducted by MSU associate professor of education Joshua Cowen and graduate student Benjamin Creed. The study is the first to offer conclusive answers to how school of choice in Michigan affects learning.

The study found “no discernible difference in math or reading test scores between kids who transfer using Schools of Choice and those who remain in their home districts.”

Cowen is careful to draw no conclusion about the value of Michigan’s school of choice program for Michigan families, telling Bridge that there are many reasons families may choose to switch schools beyond improved academics.

With school of choice involving so many children in so many schools across the state, the findings may say less about the impact of choice than about variability in the quality of schools.

“If you looked at say the top 50 schools in Michigan and only looked at the effect of schools of choice there, my hunch would be that you see some big positive results,” Cowen told Bridge. “Similarly if school of choice kids only went to the worst 50 schools we’d see big negatives. But that’s not how this system ‒ or any choice system ‒ works. If some kids are going to some great schools under school of choice, and others aren’t, it’s not that surprising to see on average that it kind of turns into a wash.”

If not for learning, why switch?

The study’s findings aren’t a surprise to Blake Prewitt, superintendent of Ferndale Schools, which experiences a large inflow of school of choice students from Detroit, along with a smaller number of students who transfer from Ferndale to surrounding school districts.

“It’s rare that someone says my kid isn’t doing well so I’m going to move them,” Prewitt said. “People move for a myriad reasons. But academics, I believe, isn’t a reason. Honestly, a lot of it ends up being demographics (such as socioeconomics and race). There is a part of the populations that feels the grass is greener somewhere else.”

Many Michigan students are eventually finding the grass isn’t actually greener. An earlier analysis of the same data by MSU’s Cowen revealed that the majority of students who leave their home district for classrooms elsewhere eventually leave their school of choice district.

“There’s a bit of a revolving door,” Cowen told Bridge in July.

Even if school of choice doesn’t improve learning and the majority of students aren’t likely to stick in their new district, Michigan families still benefit from having the power to make decisions on what schools are best for their children, argues Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a school reform organization that promotes schools of choice and charter schools.

"We're not surprised that students who choose to leave a traditional public school and attend another traditional public school would show little academic change from the move,” Naeyaert said. “Given there are numerous reasons parents choose different schools for their children, we support their right to choose."

If parents are making those choices for reasons other than improving test scores, then perhaps it’s not surprising that test scores aren’t affected by the program, Cowen said.

But Austin, of the state school board, argues that “choice for choice’s sake” is not a valid education policy. “If cross-district choice isn’t improving education, what is the point?”

Austin offered two alternatives. First is a financial carrot-and-stick model in which districts receive less state funding for school-of-choice students than for home-district students, which would encourage investment in local programs and discourage competition for student dollars.

Second would be what Austin called “managed choice,” in which the ability to transfer to a neighboring district was controlled by caps that assure a maintenance of racial and socioeconomic diversity in all districts.

“School of choice policy,” Austin said, “should be redirected toward improving learning outcomes.”

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