Spend any time exploring the world of ed reform, and the concept that gets sold to you again and again is choice. “School choice” is the term of art, within the ed reform movement, for private school vouchers.
Choice has to do a lot of work, because the evidence doesn’t. More study is absolutely necessary to evaluate the value of private school vouchers, just as more study is necessary when it comes to charter schools. But the extant evidence is not good. In fact, if you’re a champion of vouchers, it’s downright bad. Here’s recent bad news from Ohio. Here’s bad news from Milwaukee. The news from DC is, thus far, howlingly controversial; here’s some data (PDF). When it comes to DC, I personally am disturbed by the lack of quantifiable gains that aren’t educator dependent– that is, the fact that graduation rates are significantly higher but testable knowledge is not at least raises fair questions about the pressures for schools receiving vouchers to graduate students even if they have underperformed. (One of the consistent problems with school vouchers is the fact that they directly incentivize schools putting their fingers on the scale, and often with no accountability beyond the honor system.) These are just recent cases, but you can survey the available data and say with little doubt that a compelling empirical case for school vouchers doesn’t exist.
(A bit out of date but good overview on the flagging voucher movement from the Washington Monthly is here.)
Voucher proponents, in the face of this failure, have to sell hard on the idea of choice. Ross Douthat, in a typically goofy response to the repeated and public failure of school vouchers to produce better results,
changed his mind doubled down, echoing Charles Murray in saying that producing results was never the point. (Hey, who says that advocating something is the same as claiming it’s effective public policy?) It’s all about freedom, giving people choices and making them happier, even if those choices don’t actually accomplish anything. But is choice in this individualistic sense even a virtue in this case? I would submit that it’s not, and in fact that it’s directly opposed to the essential social compact that modern governance relies on.