The Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 “the year of school choice” because 13 states enacted school choice laws and another 28 considered doing so. That was just the beginning. From 2011 to 2013, 26 states passed 47 school choice laws, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. In 2013, six new school choice states enacted nine programs.
Although the number of legislative victories in recent years rapidly outpaced all the gains between 2011 and 1992, when the nation’s first voucher program began in Milwaukee, the number of students these programs reach is still minuscule. According to Friedman estimates, 1.1 million children attend private schools using vouchers, education tax credits, or education savings accounts. That sounds like a lot—and it’s a large expansion—but it’s just 2 percent of the nation’s 55.5 million preK-12 students.
With student achievement flat in this country since 1970 despite a tripling in inflation-adjusted education spending, and numerous comparisons showing the best U.S. schools are lucky to equal the average performance of international peers, it’s clear U.S. education needs substantial improvement. And school choice is perhaps the best-demonstrated education reform. No gold-standard study shows it has negative effects on students, and the vast majority of such studies show academic and social benefits. Meanwhile, the typical school choice program expends half or less of what taxpayers pay to educate children in public schools.
In addition, although charter schools have posted some much-vaunted academic gains lately, the research shows private schools do even better. A recent meta-analysis of 90 studies on religious schools found students attending them are a full year ahead of their peers in public schools. Even when controlling for background factors such as race and family income, religious school students are seven months ahead of their peers. Religious private schools also have far smaller racial achievement gaps and far fewer student behavior problems.
In short, private school choice is literally the most promising and evidence-based education reform we know of. That’s one reason it has begun expanding so quickly. But in 2013 the school choice train slowed. One reason is the parallel expansion of another set of education policies that increase not individual choice but central planning within education: Common Core national education standards and tests.
As Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek writes, “The continuing emphasis on common core standards … is often interpreted as indicating that the common core is a really big deal in school reform. The data suggest otherwise.” He points to the evidence from the last 30 years of standards and tests within states, which demonstrates merely setting goals is no assurance students will meet them. A 2012 Brookings Institution study, for example, compared state standards to student achievement and found no link at all between the two.
What states have been calling education reform for the past 30 years has not improved student achievement, which is why doubling down on it is an utter waste of time and money. As Hanushek says, Common Core is “distracting attention from any serious efforts to reform our schools.”
Unless you think the nation’s lackluster education performance is acceptable, Common Core is a serious problem. It means children in most states will suffer an education deformation that largely wastes the next several years of their academic career.
It also means the schools, lawmakers, activists, and parents now forced to work to stop Common Core are having their attention and energy diverted from more productive activities such as expanding school choice. This distressingly suggests another lost decade in American education.
Joy Pullmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute and 2013 Novak journalism fellow.