School Choice Watch (UK)

by Harry on August 16, 2004

A couple of interesting position papers are available on school admissions and school choice. This one, from the right-of-centre PolicyExchange, has been up for a while. The authors give a nice quick survey of the varieties of choice scheme operating around the world (though, like many on the right, they emphasize the Swedish example a bit more than they should), and draw conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. What is interesting about this is that they are much better informed and more honest about the proimise and limitations of schemes than other voucher supporters like Chris Woodhead and Stephen Pollard: they understand, for example, that the targetted nature of the Milwaukee scheme is crucial to its political success, and also that the availability of a large, low cost, pool of providers (absent in the UK0 was necessary for it to get off the ground. They are currently working on a specifically UK-oriented proposal to which I’ll link when they’ve completed it. One of the things that is clear from it is that the Tories (presumably under the influence of Willetts) are really trying to think through the practicalities of their voucher-type proposals.

The Social Market Foundation report has been out just a week or two (why did they release it in the summer??). It’s an excellent, and well-informed, proposal about school admissions. The key, and interesting, proposals are a dramatic simplification of the admissions process; and the idea that when schools are oversubscribed they should admit by lottery (an idea I have advocated for a long time). The piece also recognises the need for built-in oversupply of places in order for the ‘market’ in places to work, an idea that the government is pretty set against (since it views ‘surplus’ places as wasteful). The government has also consistently resisted the idea of removing discretion over admissions from schools, on the grounds that it is unfeasible and would not make any difference anyway. I hope that the quirky release date of the report does not mean it will be ignored by ministers.



John Quiggin 08.17.04 at 5:45 am

Todays NYT headlines two relevant reports, one on poor test scores at charter schools and the other on a Florida court ruling against vouchers, mainly on church-and-state grounds, but there is also some mention of test scores.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the implications of this, Harry – I haven’t had time to formulate any yet.


John Quiggin 08.18.04 at 12:28 pm

I found this response from education secretary Paige to the charter schools theory, via NZ Bear. It doesn’t sound like a convincing refutation to me. I’ll look for the report itself.


harry 08.18.04 at 1:55 pm

Thanks for both sets of references John — I am reading, honest, and would be blogging about it if I weren’t over-busy at home. My take is that Paige is over-stating the case, but that the NYT was exaggerating. It is, incredibly, difficult to get statistically significant comparisons, not least because most charters are very small. ALso, he’s right that some quite large number of charters (but we don’t know how large) are specifically aimed at children with particular disadvantages, esp. special educational needs, and also that they tend to proliferate in areas where there is a high degree of dissatisfaction with the schools (often related to ‘achievement’ scores, which, as we all know, are not alsways strongly related to the quality of the schools, but schools do, politically, tend to get blamed). Anyway, I’ll try to think more and say something about this later..


eudoxis 08.18.04 at 5:07 pm

Charter schools (to the public schools) accommodate a special class of students, usually underperformers in the public school system. If anything, the scores reported in the NYT are encouraging. Underperformers, when sequestered into charter schools with innovative teaching methods, fall only a few percentage points behind the national average. (Note that regional differences are similar to the reported differences between charter and public schools.) The analysis by the American Federation of Teachers is slim; there is no peer comparison.

The report card can be found at the NCES page. At the other end of the spectrum from charter schools are the private schools to which vouchers apply. They score considerably higher than the public schools. Again, there is no peer comparison, by and large, an elite group of achievers attend the private schools.

Two hopeful signs for the public schools: the scores from this year are greatly improved from previous years and both the racial and gender gaps are narrowed.


John Quiggin 08.18.04 at 9:59 pm

Eudoxis, can you give a link to where NCES data distinguishes the private schools between charter and fee-based private in the way you describe. I could only find Catholic and “other”


eudoxis 08.19.04 at 2:09 am

I didn’t mean to imply that there are separate private and public charter schools. Charter schools are considered public school alternatives, not private schools, even when governed by private concerns. The reason I mention private schools is because, even though they are completely autonomous from public school governance, they achieve higher scores on standardized tests than the public schools. My first inclination is to suspect student demographics. This would be altered by vouchers.

The AFT has more useful information here, including the promise of a better peer-matched analysis in December.

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