Debating School Choice”

Harvard Magazine; February 20, 2016

One goal of social sci­ence is to inject ratio­nal­i­ty into pub­lic debates, like the school-choice ques­tion, that have been ani­mat­ed by par­tic­u­lar­ist pas­sions and untest­ed social the­o­ries. Evidence-based research has pro­duced diver­gent data on the effec­tive­ness of school-choice sys­tems (which aim to equal­ize edu­ca­tion access by allow­ing fam­i­lies to choose among schools in their dis­trict) over neigh­bor­hood-based schools. Under choice sys­tems, fam­i­lies typ­i­cal­ly com­pete for seats at the best schools through a lot­tery, an admis­sions test, or some oth­er mech­a­nism. Boston’s bus­ing sys­tem shared the same goal: delink children’s neigh­bor­hoods from the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and inte­grate the schools. (The city aban­doned much of the sys­tem in favor of more neigh­bor­hood-based school assign­ment in 2013.)


Choice’s suc­cess depends heav­i­ly on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the cities where it’s imple­ment­ed and the mechan­ics of each system—and a good deal more on fac­tors that researchers don’t yet under­stand. Recent con­tri­bu­tions by vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics Parag Pathak and Larsen pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­i­cy Christopher Avery sug­gest that even if school choice could work exact­ly as intend­ed, the pol­i­cy may harm the dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents whom it’s designed to help.