Un-tether the students

Martine Udahemuka
Insights Newsletter
10 June, 2016

I have just returned from a journey of discovery in the UK and the US looking at how they navigate the notion of school choice.

As a concept, it remains highly contentious. Those against argue that choice is an illusion for those families that the policies claim to benefit.

In New Zealand attending a school perceived to be of good quality comes with a hefty mortgage. This directly limits access for poorer families whose children, on average, need a greater boost academically but do not have the cheque to go with the choice.

Of course, advocacy for choice policies should go beyond choice for its own sake. The focus should rather be on the benefits. And on my journey I found some clear wins.

What the US has over New Zealand is the number of schooling pathways available and how access to these options is made possible. 

In 2005 only 7 states had publicly funded private school choice programmes. Today, there are almost 50 such programmes in 25 states and the District of Columbia with almost 400,000 participating students. The funding targets low-income earners and students who would otherwise be stuck in failing schools.

However in a world of limited resources not everyone who applies for the funding gets it. But this provides a valuable platform to assess the benefits of these programmes. In this way, student achievement outcomes for those who applied and were successful can be compared with outcomes for those who were not successful and therefore remained in a traditional public school.

If it is assumed that the types of students who applied for the programmes were similar and motivated by the same schooling values, differences in student achievement can then be partly attributed to the school attended.

Evaluations have demonstrated that though choice has not necessarily increased test scores for all, the policies have contributed to higher rates of high school completion, particularly among black male youths.

The practice in New Zealand where school choice is restricted by one’s postcode or bank account does not serve students well. In this regard, some US states are ahead when it comes to providing real choice as they do not tether students to the school nearest to them.

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