01/08/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

School Choice Won't Mean All Choices Are Equal

To many in the pundit and policy class, education reform comes down to one idea -- school choice.

It leads the education agendas from such high-profile advocates as former-DC superintendent Michelle Rhee to the U.S. Department of Education. On January 2, not one but two blog posts were published on HuffPost advocating for more choice (here and here).

And what's not to like? As Americans, the demand for choices is encoded in our collective DNA. Competition among suppliers to attract our choice is the engine for continuous improvement in the marketplace. Why not in education? "Choice" also strikes us as simply more democratic. Shouldn't all parents have the same options affluent parents enjoy to send their child to a school that best meets his or her needs? Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stated it bluntly: "To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity for poor and disadvantaged kids in America."

I share the governor's sense of urgency when it comes to expanding educational opportunities, especially for our traditionally under-served students from low-income and minority families. There's no denying that our poorer public schools too often land on the short end of resource distribution, including access to our best teachers and high-level curriculum. A lot of poor kids just haven't had the same educational opportunities as their wealthier peers, and the results show in achievement gaps between them.

Unfortunately, the opportunities choice advocates propose do not bring a guarantee that the choice will be a good one for kids, and it can even be worse. School districts have been experimenting with choices for over 20 years, first in the form of charter schools and vouchers that individuals can take to private schools, and more recently, virtual schools. Clearly, some myth-busting schools of choice have demonstrated that low-income children can absolutely achieve to the highest levels -- just as some noteworthy traditional public schools have. But research to date has not produced any evidence that "choice and competition" in itself produces consistently better results.

A disclosure: I work for the National School Boards Association (NSBA) which opposes vouchers, taxpayer dollars to pay for tuition at private schools. NSBA does support charter schools as long as they are authorized by the school board in the community in which they are located.

But even leaving politics aside, the reality of school choice is this: Despite the few notable exceptions, students in a lot of "choice" arrangements would have been better served had they stayed in their neighborhood school.

Charter schools are perhaps the most widely promoted alternatives to the neighborhood school. No one can deny the spectacular success of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone and the KIPP Academies -- schools that serve some of the nation's poorest students and still produce the highest results. However, these charter schools turn out to be among the exceptions. According to Stanford University researchers, fewer than one in five charter schools outperforms the traditional school students would have normally attended. Two in five charters performed worse. Not exactly a great track record. Yet state and federal policymakers of both political parties act as though unlimited charter schools represent the great reform strategy.

Virtual charter schools are the latest entrée on the school choice menu. Yet parents enrolling their children in full-time virtual schools are really taking a risk. There's not a lot of data on these digital schools, which is problematic in itself. But what little exists suggests that it's very easy for students to get lost in these cybersystems. The same Stanford researchers looked at eight virtual schools in Pennsylvania. Every one performed worse than its brick-and-mortar counterpart. Ohio's two largest virtual high schools report on-time graduation rates under 50 percent; others are as low as 10 to 20 percent. This is not to say there is no place for online learning. Instruction that blends digital lessons and face-to-face interaction with a teacher is showing real promise. But right now, for most kids in most situations, full-time cyberschooling could be a bad move.

Then there are the taxpayer-funded scholarships or vouchers for students to take to private schools. Policymakers shouldn't expect much out of these strategies either. Some studies have shown that vouchers have had a modest impact on specific populations in some situations -- for example, African-American students who used their voucher to attend urban Catholic schools -- but not other students. A U.S. Department of Education study of D.C.'s voucher program likewise found that vouchers made little difference in student achievement, although they did seem to produce higher graduation rates. At best, vouchers produce mixed results.

Governor Jindal was right to point to a stronger public education system as society's great equalizer. But the solution he and many policymakers propose -- choice and competition -- is certainly no more likely, and very possibly less likely, to provide equal educational opportunity than smart investments in neighborhood public schools. And let's not forget that competition, by definition, produces winners and losers. But in this case, the risk is not borne by entrepreneurs but by our children.

That said, alternatives like charter schools have a place in our public school system as laboratories of innovation. Educators in such schools can be freed up to discover ways to propel student achievement, particular among struggling students, while existing in a system of accountability that assures students don't pay when experiments don't pan out. Collaboration between these and the traditional public schools can further bring together the best of both worlds. It supports the development of new ideas and methods while the traditional public schools have the capacity to bring proven strategies to scale so all students benefit. In the end, that is the best choice.

Patte Barth is director of the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association.