Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools
reviewed by Christopher Nelson - 2003
Title: Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools
Author(s): Brian P. Gill, P. Michael Timpane, Karen E. Ross and Dominic Brewer
Publisher: Rand, Santa Monica, CA
ISBN: 0833027654, Pages: 120, Year: 2001
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Debates about vouchers, charters, and other market-based school reforms tend to be confusing mixtures of data, ideology, politics, and constitutional argument. Brian Gill, P. Michael Timpane, Karen Ross, and Dominic Brewer of RAND seek to provide insight into these debates through a systematic review of literature on vouchers and charter schools in their book, Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools. “Whether a system based on family choice undermines the values associated with the common school,” they write, “is an empirical question” (p. 201). As the book’s title suggests, answers to these empirical questions (which involve achievement, access, integration, choice, and civic socialization) remain fraught with uncertainty. Still the authors provide an illuminating attempt to relate current research – imperfect as it is – on the subject to the continuing policy debate on market-based educational reforms.
The book begins with the issue of student achievement. After bemoaning the dearth of high quality studies on the topic, the authors conclude that researchers have failed to find consistent evidence that voucher reforms either promote or hinder student achievement (among choosers or non-choosers). However, the authors appear somewhat hopeful about vouchers’ potential, arguing that studies of programs in New York, Ohio, Washington, DC, and North Carolina suggest a “possible” positive achievement impact among African American students after one or two years.
The authors provide a similar picture of charter schools’ achievement impacts. Once again, the authors find a paucity of data and mixed results. Yet, they find evidence that charter school performance tends to improve after the first year of operation. Here, however, the argument about the absence of data is less compelling than with the voucher studies. Indeed, a number of other studies were widely available before the authors’ July, 2001 cut-off date for inclusion in the synthesis. These studies include (but are not limited to) Pennsylvania (Miron & Nelson, 2000), the District of Columbia (Henig, et al., 2000), and Colorado (Colorado Department of Education, 2000). To be sure, many of the aforementioned studies were limited by the quality of available achievement data and might have been excluded on those grounds. On the other hand, an excluded study of Michigan (Eberts & Hollenbeck, 2001) used similar (if not stronger) data than the included Michigan study and similarly strong analytical methods. As it turns out, a more comprehensive review of studies of the charter achievement impact came to similar conclusions (Miron & Nelson, 2001). Nonetheless, a clear discussion of selection criteria would have strengthened the analysis of the charter achievement effect.
As with the findings on achievement, the book’s conclusions on access (representation of disadvantaged groups) and integration (the sorting of these groups within schools) are tempered by considerable uncertainty. As with achievement, the authors’ reading of the literature leaves them somewhat optimistic. Beginning with access, the authors conclude that, as yet, there is no clear evidence of cream-skimming in voucher schools–especially in programs explicitly designed to serve low income and other disadvantaged students. Similarly, while recognizing important state-to-state variations, the authors conclude that charter school demographics appear to reflect noncharter schools. On a more negative note, the authors find evidence that children with disabilities are “clearly underrepresented” (p. 156) in both voucher and charter schools.
Unfortunately, the authors’ conclusions about access in charter schools rely almost solely on findings from a federally-sponsored study that simply compared statewide proportions of low income and minority student in charter and noncharter schools. These comparisons, however, fail to characterize properly charter schools that, while enrolling higher concentrations of low income and minority students than the typical school in the state, enroll lower concentrations than other schools in their educational market. A more appropriate comparison group, therefore, would be noncharter schools in markets actually served by charter schools.
Turning to integration, the authors conclude that vouchers might foster integration by allowing poor and minority students to enroll in private schools. Similarly, the authors find that most (though certainly not all) charter schools appear to enroll reasonable concentrations of minority students. Once again, however, the authors either missed or chose not to include a number of relevant charter school studies available at the time.
The greatest knowledge gap, according to the authors, is about how voucher and charter schools might affect students’ socialization in civic values. This gap is unfortunate, given that many critiques of school choice center on the reforms’ expected impacts on social solidarity. The evidence is considerably stronger, however, on the issue of customer satisfaction, with most studies showing choosers to be more satisfied than those remaining in traditional public schools.
One of the book’s core contentions is that “...the list of unknowns [about voucher and charter schools] remains substantially longer than the list of knowns” (p. 204). Of the unknowns, perhaps the most important is how the reforms would work on a large scale. Throughout, the authors point out that success or failure in small programs is no guarantee of similar outcomes in larger-scale implementations. To address the knowledge gaps, the authors recommend that researchers seek to get inside the “black box” and identify the correlates of success and failure across voucher and charter schools. They also call for a “grand school choice experiment” (p. 208); however, the authors point out a number of tough methodological challenges any such experiment would have to address.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength lies in its attempt to use the imperfect existing knowledge base about voucher and charter schools to speak to pressing policy questions. “Even where the evidence is less than definitive,” the authors assert, “guidance can be provided on how specific variations in the details of voucher and charter policies are likely to affect achievement” (p. 72). In this spirit, the book’s final chapter includes recommendations for how specific design characteristics of voucher and charter programs might further each of the goals discussed above (achievement, choice, access, integration, and civic socialization). While few of the recommendations are new, it is refreshing to see them linked to findings from the empirical literature.
Yet, in this strength also lies the book’s vulnerability. Voucher and charter opponents will likely find the author’s extrapolations too optimistic. Voucher and charter proponents, for their part, may be tempted to ignore the authors’ careful caveats and proclaim victory. Indeed, most of the book’s conclusions are best interpreted as suggestive insights rather than definitive findings. In the meantime, the authors point out that “. . . political decisions will undoubtedly be made, for and against vouchers and charter schools. They will be informed by good evidence, one hopes, but they will not be fully justified by it for many years to come” (p. 233). While one can quibble with some of their specific findings, Gill and his colleagues have provided an exceptionally useful resource for researchers, policymakers, foundation officers, and others seeking to assess the value of voucher and charter schools as instruments of education reform.
Colorado Department of Education. (2000). 1998-1999 Colorado charter schools evaluation study: The characteristics, status, and performance record of Colorado charter schools. Denver: Author.
Eberts, R.W., & Hollenbeck, K.M. (2001). An examination of student achievement in Michigan charter schools. Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Henig, J.R., Holyoke, T.T., Lacireno-Paquet, N., & Moser, M. (2001). Growing pains: An evaluation of charter schools in the District of Columbia; 1999-2000. Washington, DC: The Center for Washington Area Studies, The George Washington University.
Miron, G. & Nelson, C. (2000). Autonomy in exchange for accountability: An initial study of Pennsylvania charter schools. Kalamazoo, MI: The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University.
Miron, G. & Nelson, C. (2001) Student academic achievement in charter schools: What we know and why we know so little. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Occasional Paper, No. 41. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.