National school choice report shows traditional public schools perform as well as charter schools; more students in public schools of choice; public and private schools have different students

National school choice report shows traditional public schools perform as well as charter schools; more students in public schools of choice; public and private schools have different students


School choice has been a controversial topic in public education for decades. One side, visibly represented by current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has argued that policies giving parents more choices where to send their children to school will improve education through competition and individualization. The other side argues that these plans will drain public funding from schools serving all students to support schools that can pick their enrollment.

A new report from Secretary DeVos’ own Department of Education provides new insights. Some key findings include:

Students in public charter schools performed no different than traditional public school students on national reading and math tests.

According to the report, “In 2017, no measurable differences in average 8th-grade reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools. This pattern persisted after taking into account how differences in parents’ educational attainment were related to the assessment scores.”

In other words, hopes that less regulated, more independent charter schools allowing parents more choices would significantly boost student performance and narrow achievement gaps have not materialized on the only common test used for a sample of students in all states.

Kansas has a charter school law, but charter advocates consider it “weak” because charters must be approved by the local board of education as well as the State Board of Education. This report suggests a “stronger” charter law would not make a difference in Kansas student performance on national tests.

The percentages of students attending public and non-public schools are not changing.

Some school choice advocates say many parents are dissatisfied with public education and would leave it if they could. Some public school advocates say public funding for private schools for vouchers and tax credits will cut public education enrollment and funding. However, from 1999 to 2016, the percentage of students nationally in private schools or homeschooled has remained the same – 12 percent – despite the expansion of targeted aid programs for private schools (like the Kansas private school tax credit program).

Over that time, private school enrollment has dropped slightly, from 10 to 9 percent, and home school students have risen slightly from 2 to 3 percent.

In Kansas, public schools have typically enrolled about 90 percent of the school-aged population. According to the U.S. census, there were 519,526 Kansas between age 5 and 17 in 2017. According to the Kansas State Department of Education, in 2017-18 there were 469,902 schools in public schools (excluding those under age 5 in preschool, four-year-old at-risk and three- and four-year-old special education), or 90.5 percent of the 5-17-year-old population.

More students are attending public schools chosen by parents.

According to a survey of parents, the percentage of students attending public schools they chose rather than schools they were assigned has increased from 14 percent in 1999 to 19 percent in 2016. That includes not only charter schools but also options such as magnet schools or other schools where the student was not “regularly assigned.” Sixty percent of parents of students in chosen public schools were satisfied by with the school, compared to 54 percent of parents in assigned public schools.

Kansas has less one percent of students in public charter schools, but a significant number of students attend schools chosen by parents, such as magnet schools in some large districts; districts where parents are allowed to choose among neighborhood schools; career academies where students choose among career and technical education pathways; and virtual schools. In addition, nearly 21,000 students – about 4.2 percent of all students – attend schools in districts where they are not residents.

Public, charter and private schools serve very different student populations.

Charter schools enroll a higher percentage of Black and Hispanic students and a lower percentage of White students than traditional public schools; have higher percentages of low income students; and are much more common in cities. The point helps explain the other differences: U.S. cities are more racially diverse and have higher percentages of low income students.

Compared to public schools, private schools have more students from two parent homes; a much higher percentage of parents with at least a bachelor’s degree; and less than half the percentage of poor or near-poor students.

These differences are not surprising because private schools usually charge tuition and fees that make it more difficult to for low income students to attend. That is one reason school choice advocates support public funding for private school students. However, cost is not the only limiting factor for private schools, because they can also set higher academic, discipline and other requirements than public schools.

The report did not compare public and private schools for academic performance.

School safety has been improving at both public and private schools.

The percentage of students nationally reporting that gangs were present at school dropped from 24.2 percent in 2005 to 8.6 percent in 2017; students who reported being called hate-related words and seeing hate-related graffiti dropped from 13.3 percent in 1999 to 6.4 percent in 2017; students who reported being bullied dropped from 31.7 percent in 2007 to 20.2 percent in 2017. Private school students report lower rates of these activities, but declines occurred in both public and private schools.