School Choice Is Associated With More Student Engagement

One thing I harp on a fair amount is that it’s a shame the concept of school choice has been bound to divisive rhetoric about competition and free markets. Every student is different, and therefore the presence of more choices always makes it more likely that a student will find a school that meshes with their personal characteristics. Studies suggest that students have the potential to benefit from a particular school’s composition of social groups, use of technology, academic expectations, or starting time, and those are just a few of many areas where more choices could allow students to find a better fit.

Yet there hasn’t been a lot of research on whether school choice leads to better matches between students and schools. Obviously there has been a lot of research in the “choice” genre, but these studies generally purport to reveal the benefits of choice by showing that public schools of choice (i.e. charter schools) perform better than traditional public schools. What these studies miss is that sometimes the traditional public school is the best fit for a student, and so a student who excels in a traditional public school may also be a school-choice success story. Therefore determining the effect of school choice on student-school matches shouldn’t involve comparing types of public schools within a particular region, it should involve comparing levels of school choice across regions.

That’s exactly what a group of Saint Louis University researchers attempted to do in a new study that examines the relationship between school choice and student engagement. After controlling for factors such as class size, ethnicity, and SES status, the researchers looked at how the number of schools in a county influenced academic engagement. Their findings suggest that school choice is not simply a means to the end of having better schools, it’s an end in and of itself.

We consider how the amount of educational choice of different types in a local educational marketplace affects student engagement using a large, national population of 8th grade students. We find that more choice of regular public schools in the elementary and middle school years is associated with a lower likelihood that students will be severely disengaged in eighth grade, and more choices of public schools of choice has a similar effect but only in urban areas. In contrast, more private sector choice does not have such a general beneficial effect.


Our evidence is consistent with the argument that more choices lead to the more efficient matching of students and schools. In the entire sample and urban areas, more choice in the regular public sector improves student engagement. Regular public schools may offer the advantage of providing choice, while permitting schools to be embedded in the local community, which may provide some benefits for student engagement (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987, p. 7). In central cities, charters may produce more efficient matching of students and schools, producing more highly engaged students. These results do not necessarily imply that we should create more regular public or charter schools since the benefits from more choice must be weighed against the costs associated with expanding choice, such as more racial/ethnic stratification (Bischoff, 2008, p. 207).

While the study suggests that charter schools have a positive impact, one could argue that if the issue is merely the quantity of schools, districts could potentially provide more choice via an increase in traditional public schools. Thus the solution is not necessarily more charter schools, but better urban planning that creates neighborhoods with enough density for a variety of traditional public schools to thrive.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, for better or worse, charter advocates have co-opted rhetoric about choice, and their opponents seem to have no interest in taking it back. Thus it’s unlikely that unions or traditional districts will ever get behind a push for more school choice. It also seems likely that districts will have a harder time creating schools with real differences, and districts may also be slower to adapt if a certain school is revealed to be a poor fit for most of the students in the area.

Regardless of what you think of charter schools or the “school choice” movement, it seems clear that having more schooling options is a good thing. Charter proponents would do well to play up this aspect of choice because it makes for a compelling argument while also steering clear of controversial ideology. At the same time, it would be nice to see charter opponents put forward comprehensive school choice plans that conform to their own vision of public education. We don’t all have to agree on the way to provide choice, but it would be good to reach a consensus that choice is in fact a good thing.
Vaughn, M., & Witko, C. (2013). Does the amount of school choice matter for student engagement? The Social Science Journal, 50 (1), 23-33 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2012.07.004

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