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Research

  • Apr 19 2016

Pursuing Innovation

By Patrick J. Wolf, Anna Jacob Egalite

Competition is the key to transforming education in the United States, and one policy is proved by the data to drive more improvement than others, according to our Pursuing Innovation report. The authors examine the current performance of America’s K–12 education system, identify the market share of different types of educational choice options and analyze how effective open enrollment, charters, and educational choice programs are at improving student outcomes.

What Will I Learn? Download Report

In this report, you will learn:

  • 1

    Traditional public education by ZIP Code is on its way out.

    Not long ago, parents could choose a school only by moving to a different district or footing the bill for private schooling—two forms of educational choice that are on the decline. The number of U.S. students who default to an assigned public school has hovered around 41 percent over the time period from 2001 to 2013. But this overall statistic masks changes in the types of school choice exercised by students. Specifically, non-residential forms of school choice—including open enrollment, charter schools, homeschooling, and private educational choice programs—are expanding rapidly. Those four types of educational choice accounted for approximately 20 million children, or just over 40 percent of the total K–12 population, according to 2013 data. Those making non-residential school choices increased by 21 percent between 2001 and 2013.
  • 2

    Of the current forms of school choice, competition from private school choice and charter school choice works best to improve schools.

    Though other forms of choice can exert some competitive pressure on existing public schools, it is limited. When public funding can follow a student to a charter or private school, the existing public school is directly affected by the immediate or eventual loss of that student’s funding. Thus, charters and private school choice programs incentivize public schools to better serve their existing students or attract new enrollees. Thirty of the 42 available studies conducted on the topic find competition from charters, school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships result in achievement gains for at least some district school students in some subject areas.
  • 3

    Until educational choice expands, improvements will be marginal.

    Most educational choice programs have resulted in modest improvements. But when school choice programs dramatically expand, stronger changes take place. Florida and Milwaukee are just two examples. In those areas, significant increases in publicly funded educational options resulted in bigger increases in public school students’ achievement. In the first year of the Florida tax-credit scholarship program, the scholarships awarded increased the number of low-income students attending private schools by more than 50 percent. The district school response was an increase in test scores of up to 3 percent. The positive effect of private school competition in Florida district schools continued to increase steadily over the first five years of the program, keeping pace with enrollment increases. In Milwaukee, when a ban on participation by religious private schools was lifted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1998, there was a three-fold increase in the number of private schools participating in the program and a four-fold increase in the number of choice students. This dramatic change in the level of competition experienced by district schools resulted in a significant increase in student achievement equivalent to moving from the 50th percentile of academic achievement to the 64th.
  • 4

    Innovation is necessary because the old system of delivering public education is not improving quickly enough.

    Since 1971, America’s spending on education has increased by 300 percent, and that’s adjusted for inflation. Yet student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has demonstrated only minor improvements for 9- and 13-year olds and been almost stagnant for 17-year-olds. Additionally, data show students participating in private school choice programs experience similar or better academic outcomes in their learning environments of choice at a much lower cost per pupil than their neighboring public schools. The next evolution of school choice, education savings accounts, do even more to incentivize efficiency by allowing parents to save funds for future educational expenses.

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