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N’Orleans Research Highlights the Importance of Smart Choice Programs

There are days when I think I’ve found the single, universal answer to all of my five-year-old problems. Like the time I used chewing gum to stick a loose sole back to my shoe. When I figured the same approach would also help me hang a cool Spiderman posted on my bedroom wall, I got in big trouble. Then there was the time I discovered that I could use the microwave to create nachos. It worked less spectacularly when I used it as a towel drier. I think I finally understand what my dad means when he pats me on the head and says, “Son, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet.”

As it turns out, the same thing holds true in education reform. I love school choice, but that doesn’t mean that just any choice policy will fix all of our woes automatically. It has to be done right, and one has to remember that no system (and especially not the current school system) is perfect.

Yet perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good when we’re talking about school choice programs. That’s why I get a little sad when I read stories like this one from KUNC about a big, fancy report from an outfit called The Education Research Alliance of New Orleans.

The report looks at the somewhat wild choice system in post-Katrina N’Orleans—a system in which roughly 90 percent of kids attend a charter school. (True nerds can click here for the technical report, which comes complete with fancy equations.) Among other things, it finds that families—and particularly poor families or those with relatively low levels of education—often make choices based off transportation worries and priorities other than academic achievement. This, it says, could increase the very inequities school choice seeks to eliminate.

I want to pause for a moment and reiterate something very important: The idea that the only beneficial or valid reasons to choose a school are academic in nature is, quite frankly, wrong. There are many, many reasons a kid may need a new school, including safety concerns, athletic considerations, supplementary offerings, value sets, and many other things. All of those things are valuable in their own right, and many of them may also help kids do better academically.

Implicitly or explicitly telling parents what they should value is wrongheaded. Implying that they are unwittingly making society worse off with their choices is insulting. Different families have different preferences—systemic or not—and that’s okay as long as it isn’t due to a failure of policy design.

I should also mention the fact that the report seems rather contradictory. It finds a dramatic decrease in the gap between the highest- and lowest-income neighborhoods in New Orleans and an average increases in test scores across the city in the wake of post-Katrina reforms, yet still argues that school choice may increase inequality because preferences differ between families in different subsets of society. Yes, I find that as confusing as you do.

That’s not to say that the report doesn’t raise legitimate concerns. Some of the findings about the importance of transportation in choice are similar to those in recent research from A + Denver. As many of you know, I myself have written about transportation issues before and even offered up some futuristic potential cures. The report also reiterates other research findings that low-income or low-education families tend to find it harder to find and decipher information about school choice than their more affluent peers.

But here’s the thing: These are not arguments against choice programs. They are arguments for smarter choice programs. We need to work hard to find solutions to transportation and information-provision problems—neither of which is unsolvable. But let’s try to do that without throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Remember: No silver bullets.