SAN FRANCISCO, California, August 30, 2006 – An exhaustive analysis of school choice programs in the San Diego Unified School District is putting the driving rationale behind such programs – improving academic performance – into considerable doubt. At the same time, the study finds that choice programs do increase racial and socioeconomic integration. As the second largest school district in California, and the eighth largest in the nation, San Diego is highly representative of student diversity. These findings have compelling implications for the school-choice debate that is brewing as reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act approaches.
The study, released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from the Smith Richardson Foundation, Inc. and the Girard Foundation, finds that with few exceptions, test scores of students admitted by lottery to choice programs were no different, one-to-three years after admission, from test scores of similar students who were not admitted. This raises questions about whether or not public school choice, by itself, can improve academic performance – and carries serious implications for the NCLB requirement that students in failing schools be provided district-funded bussing to other public schools.
The study also found that choice programs significantly increased racial integration. For example, in 2001, black students applying to one choice program increased their integration with white students by 7 percent, compared to the year before. Moreover, if all the black applicants had found available slots and switched schools, they would have increased their integration by 50 percent. (Lack of available space and a variety of other factors limited participation.) In fact, nonwhite students appear to be far more interested in school choice. In fall 2001, nonwhite students were twice as likely as white students to apply to one of the choice programs. Overall, school choice is popular in San Diego: In 2003-2004, more than one-quarter (28%) of San Diego Unified students were participating in choice programs.
“These programs may need more time to improve achievement in math and reading,” says PPIC senior fellow Julian Betts, who co-authored the study with Lorien Rice, Andrew Zau, Emily Tang, and Cory Koedel. “Given how popular school choice is, there may be many valid reasons besides academic improvement that motivate students to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.”
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.