University of Arkansas professor provides conclusions about latest research


The Institute for Educational Initiatives recently hosted Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas for its 2016 Notre Dame Lecture on Educational Policy. A well-respected and widely-published researcher on school choice policy, Wolf is a Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and a 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the university’s Department of Education Reform.

In his talk, entitled “Private School Choice: What We Know and Don’t Know,” Wolf discussed the myriad of research papers published on private school choice initiatives such as vouchers, tax credit scholarship programs, and educational savings accounts.

These three types of choice programs continue to expand across the nation’s educational landscape. To date, 25 voucher programs exist in 14 states. This form of choice gives power to parents by enabling them to use a portion of the public funds allocated for their child’s education by the state to attend a school of their choice. Tax credit scholarships, which operate in the same manner as a voucher except use private money, have also become more widely implemented, and there are now 21 of these programs in 17 states. Wolf called the policy of education savings accountsfunds deposited in an account controlled by parents to be used for any educational expense, whether it be tuition, private tutoring, or textbooksthe “iphone of school choice” because of its newness.

Wolf acknowledged that published research often presents contradictory conclusions about the relative successes and failures of these programs. Moreover, such research may be tainted by partisan bias from powerful special interest groups opposed to choice, such as teachers unions. Seeking to combat this uncertainty, Wolf conducted his own metadata analysis of 19 different studies to reach some verifiable and notable conclusions.

In terms of student achievement, Wolf’s analysis shows a decline in test scores in the first two years that a voucher student switches from a public school to a participating choice school. Yet, the research also shows a clear benefit in math and reading after the third year, with gains that continue to increase exponentially after that milestone. Interestingly, Wolf said that student achievement is the “smallest positive” that private school choice currently offers, according to the research. This may be due to the adjustment time necessary for students switching schools, the schools adjusting to a new influx of students, or a variety of other undetermined variables.

Wolf noted that all of these studies are what researchers call “black box analyses;” they can only study directly what is happening without knowing the exact factors “in the box” making the results occur.

Wolf found other clear positives from private school choice programs not demonstrated by test scores. These include marked increases in high school graduation and college retention rates, crime reduction effects, an increase in civic value consciousness, and a strong parent network that vocally supports school choice.

In Wisconsin, a survey of publicly available criminal record data enabled Wolf to find that choice program participation reduces the likelihood that one is convicted of any crime by 42 percent, and the likelihood that one is convicted of a drug-related offense specifically decreases by 93 percent. He noted that this analysis was only possible in Wisconsin due to their readily available crime statistics.

In terms of civic values, a survey of all published research on this topic displayed that three studies find public schools to be better at promoting the public purposes of education, such as voter participation, understanding of democracy, volunteerism, etc. Twenty-four studies found no difference between public schools and private schools, and 41 studies found private schools to be better at promoting the public purposes of education than public schools themselves.

Wolf also studied the parental response to school choice programs, especially the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, in his book The School Choice Journey. He writes about the federal effort to close the voucher program to new students in 2009 and the adamantly opposed parental response that immediately followed. As a result, the program was reauthorized and expanded in 2011.

Wolf also mentioned some common criticisms of school choice policies, but emphasized that they have dealt with policy design issues, and therefore can be ameliorated. He noted the critique that children left behind in the public schools are harmed by school choice, and stated that no empirical study has actually reached this conclusion. On the contrary, studies have found that choice policies actually positively benefit the students that remain in public schools.

For the “What We Don’t Know” portion of his talk, Wolf mentioned some of the issues contained within the black box of studies on school choice. “We do not know why some voucher programs have better test scores, why most see more gains in reading than in math, and we do not know the exact challenges of implementation,” Wolf stated.

He also lamented that debates about school choice have not improved, despite the research displaying their positive effects. Affirming the need to be open to the arguments and concerns of both sides, Wolf noted that “the media has not been helpful in reporting accurate stories about choice.”

Nevertheless, he seemed hopeful about the future outlook of choice programs and concluded by saying that, “the opponents of school choice have a tough jobfreedom and market choice are imbedded within the American ethos, and it is going to be difficult to take these away from citizens.”

Kate Hardiman is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in the PPE (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) Program. She is writing her senior thesis on school choice, specifically studying the morality of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, and hopes to teach with the Alliance for Catholic Education after graduation.