Children should have equal access to a high-quality education. It’s a popular talking point among both the left and the right because it’s non-objectionable—yet it’s far from the reality of American primary and secondary education. As the landmark Reagan-administration report, A Nation at Risk, put it 35 years ago, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Advocates for so-called school choice, however, argue that they have a solution: If you provide students and families with a broad range of options—including charter schools, private schools, and traditional public schools—they can choose the one that best suits them. In theory, the schools would compete with one another, vying for students, and the competition itself would spur them all to improve, as Peter Bergman, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University, told me. Ideally, that competition is open to all students equally, as it is that sort of open free-for-all that ought to produce the best results.
Of course, for this to work, parents need to know about the options available to them. Research has shown that there are significant barriers to choice, among them access to transportation, enrollment issues, and a lack of information about the schools. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research adds another dimension to this problem: Schools themselves may play a role in encouraging more “desirable” students to enroll, meaning that often it’s more the schools choosing the students than the reverse.