Education freedom and student achievement: A happy marriage

This commentary from Patrick J. Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions.; Jay P. Greene, a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy; James D. Paul, director of research at the Educational Freedom Institute; and Matt Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter School Association and executive editor of reimaginED, summarizes their recent study on the effects of competition on public schools and student achievement.

States with more education freedom tend to have higher student test scores and achievement gains.

Such is the main finding from our recent study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice. Far from destroying the public schools, as some anti-school-choice alarmists claim, competition from school choice appears to motivate public schools to deliver a better education to students, exactly as market theory would predict.

The statistical results from our study tell a happy tale. Parents can be given easier access to a wide range of educational choices for their child and statewide achievement levels will grow. Education freedom is a win-win.

To test whether education freedom is associated with higher or lower levels and gains in student achievement, we first constructed a comprehensive and balanced index of the availability and ease-of-use of all forms of school choice in the states. One of us, Greene, had developed such a measure in 2001.

We borrowed both the name – the Education Freedom Index – and the design of that measure and updated it using data from 2016-17. We measured the availability and use of private school choice, public charter schooling, homeschooling and public school choice in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Weighing each of the four forms of school choice equally, we produced the 2019 Education Freedom Index (EFI).

Arizona had the most education freedom in the U.S., according to our index. That made the Grand Canyon State a repeat winner, as it topped the Education Freedom Index ranking in 2001 as well.

Arizona ranked eighth in public school choice, second in charter school choice, and third in private school choice. That last component of the 2019 EFI – private school choice – likely will be even higher for Arizona the next time states are ranked on education freedom, as former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the country’s first universal private school choice law last July.

Indiana ranked second and Minnesota third on our balanced scorecard of education freedom.

What relationship does education freedom have to student achievement? To answer that question, we ran a series of statistical models predicting aggregate state score levels and gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. Our various statistical models controlled for per-pupil spending, student/teacher ratio, student demographics, teacher quality, and school choice regulation in predicting 2019 NAEP levels and achievement gains since 2003.

Regarding both levels and gains, in our models with control variables, we identified a statistically significant positive correlation between a state’s Education Freedom Index score and NAEP outcomes. More freedom is associated with more learning.

Our findings are not necessarily causal, as education freedom levels are chosen by state policymakers and not randomly assigned. Still, our results indicate a positive relationship between education freedom and student achievement and certainly fly in the face of claims that school choice undermines the public school system or harms non-choosing students.

Our findings contribute to the burgeoning set of studies and a recent meta-analysis all showing that competition from school choice generates a rising tide of achievement that lifts all boats.

To paraphrase American revolutionary Patrick Henry, “Give me education freedom and thereby give the students higher NAEP scores!”

Or something like that.

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BY Special to NextSteps