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Five takeaways on school choice from Vanderbilt scholar

Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, in Orange Mound.
Kids eating lunch at Aspire Hanley Elementary, a charter school in the Orange Mound of Memphis.
J. Zubrzycki

In recent years, charter schools have proliferated and the state’s use of school vouchers have become an annual debate in the legislature. Ron Zimmer, an expert on school choice and researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, recently gave a presentation on the impact expanded school choice could have in Tennessee to a crowd of state politicians, educators and Governor Bill Haslam at a recent education summit.

For the presentation, school choice was defined as charter schools and private school vouchers. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by outside organizations and subject to fewer regulations than traditional public schools. Vouchers are typically used to let low-income families use public funds to pay for private schools. Tennessee does not yet have a voucher program, although many think the passage of one is imminent this upcoming legislative session.

Here are five takeaways from his presentation:

1) Charters and vouchers have yet to show “revolutionary” impact on student test scores. Zimmer said national studies aren’t conclusive on the impact of charter schools or school vouchers on student performance. When studies have shown vouchers and charters to have positive effects on test scores, the effects have been modest.

2) But, some studies are showing that charters and vouchers have significant impacts on outcomes other than test scores. Although most research hasn’t shown that students’ use of charter schools or vouchers will result in them gaining higher test scores, early studies have shown that charter schools and vouchers might impact non-test related outcomes, like college persistence and behavior. A study Zimmer authored on charter school students in Chicago and Florida showed significant impact on students completing high school, going to college, and staying in college if they go, but Zimmer said more research needs to be done.

3) Charter schools and voucher programs use fewer public funds than traditional public schools — in most cases. Research has pretty consistently found that charter schools receive fewer tax dollars, Zimmer said, in part because charter schools typically do not receive public resources for facilities, and may not have some costs that local districts do, like retirement benefits. Students enrolled in voucher programs in other states have also typically required less public expenditure than those in traditional public schools. But, Zimmer said, if charter schools are filled with students who would have otherwise gone to private school, as some studies have found to be the case, there are public funds being spent on them that otherwise wouldn’t be. The same goes for students using vouchers who would have gone to private school even without a voucher program. Zimmer said that’s less at play in Tennessee than in northern states, where affordable private Catholic schools are more common.

4) But charter schools and vouchers do take away money from traditional public schools. “[School choice] takes away resources from the public schools,” Zimmer said. “That’s part of the design of charter policy, to create competition.” He said the loss of students to charters or voucher programs is hard for traditional public schools in the short run, because they still have costs that are fixed, like upkeep of their facilities, no matter how many students they have.

5) A lot more research on school choice needs to be done, especially in Tennessee. Initially, Tennessee statute limited the growth of charter schools by only allowing charter schools to serve low-income students. It wasn’t until 2011 that the legislature opened up charter school enrollment to all Tennessee students, paving the way for rapid expansion of the charter sector. Because of Tennessee’s delayed entry into the charter world, only one major study on charters has included Tennessee charter schools. Zimmer said there’s a need for more research on charters in Tennessee, especially now that the state has 78 charter schools and 19,000 students attending them.

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