It's time to end the school choice study wars, because school choice is about more than just data.
Every time a new study comes out about school choice, both sides twist the study's results, methodology, and data sources until the study supports their viewpoint. They do this no matter how large the choice program's supposed impact was, or how unique the city or state it covered is. Every study is either a weapon in their arsenal of arguments, or an enemy weapon that must be neutralized.
The latest battleground is Washington, D.C., where the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program gives more than 1,100 students (mostly from low-income, minority families) a scholarship to be used at the private school of their choice. (Translation: It's a school voucher program.) The program is so popular that almost 4,000 students applied for the current school year, but it only had enough funding to give 234 of those applicants a scholarship (scholarships are awarded by lottery).
A study released last week by the federal Department of Education found that students lucky enough to get a scholarship actually did worse on a standardized math test than students who applied for the program but didn't get in.
(Believe it or not, Congress wasn't dismayed by the study and made sure a three-year funding extension of the program is included in its budget. As it should.)
But maybe finding the school with the best test scores isn't every parent's top priority.
It must not be, because the same study also found that parents of students in and not in the program were equally satisfied with their schools, despite the math gap. Maybe it's because parents of voucher students thought their children's new schools were safer, or it was a stronger community, or it was building their child's character, or had some other virtue that their standard public school lacked.
The whole point of school choice is that every student is different. The idea is that, rather than a one-size-fits-all educational system, parents should be empowered to pick the school that works best for their child.
And that's the point: Every parent has different priorities. Some will want to pick the school with the best average math scores, yes. But others will want the school with the best reading scores, or the best STEM program, or the best performing arts program, or the best sports, or the best remedial education program, or the school closest to home, or the safest school, or any combination of all of the above.
Some, like Elizabeth Peace, needed a change because their child was being bullied and administrators wouldn't do anything about it. Other parents, like Gary Jones, were told by their elementary school teachers to get their child into a private school, because the child was too smart and too well-behaved for the middle school she'd have been assigned to. Other parents, like Carmen Ali, sent their oldest children to the public schools and felt they weren't challenged enough. Now in private schools, her two youngest children feel like they're part of one big family.
Parents decide what the best schools are, not bureaucrats or studies.
Just because Cheerios are the most heart-healthy cereal doesn't mean we take away one's choice to choose the cereal with the most fiber, protein, or sugar.
To be clear, studies on school choice are important information. If a parent is using a voucher to get his kids' math scores up, she may change her mind because of this study. The studies are good to inform parents in their own choices, not to take away those choices.
But rather than torturing ourselves over studies and thinking that a choice of school can be narrowed down to one statistic decided by a standardized test, we should make sure parents are well-informed and have plenty of choices. They know their child better than anyone, and they know what to look for in every school.
Jason Russell is the contributors editor for the Washington Examiner.