The documentary film Waiting for Superman follows five children and their families as they struggle to find educational opportunities. Fed up with the ineffective public schools in their communities, but unable to freely transfer their tax dollars to a school of their choice, the families enter lotteries for the few available slots in private and charter schools. As an unapologetic denunciation of the American educational system, the film features families openly weeping at the prospect of losing the lottery and returning to the public schools.
Opinions will vary about the movie’s dramatic style and presentation. Some viewers are themselves moved to tears, while others chafe at the what they see as an overly emotional message too high on idealism. Put Ross Douthat of the New York Times in the latter category. The film is “manipulative, simplistic and more than a little bit utopian,” he wrote in a recent column. He was quick to add, however, that the director’s “prescription—more accountability for teachers and bureaucrats, and more choices for parents and kids—deserves all the support his film promises to win for it.”
Douthat’s point is well taken. No educational intervention can magically make every student above average, and people who leave the theater in search of a panacea will inevitably be disappointed. But utopianism aside, school choice programs have led to significant positive outcomes that justify the public’s strong support.
Take charter schools. They receive public funding but are allowed to operate without the regulatory burden faced by ordinary public schools. The U.S. Department of Education recently published a rigorous evaluation of charter schools nationwide. The report’s authors found that parents are by large margins more satisfied with charter schools—and with the academic and social development of their children who attend—than are public school parents. For example, charter schools were rated “excellent” by 85 percent of parents, while non-charter schools received the “excellent” rating by just 37 percent of parents.
The overall impact of charter school attendance on test scores was insignificant. In other words, students of similar ability scored about the same on tests whether they went to a charter school or to a regular public school. This is the dose of realism that Douthat has referenced—test scores are notoriously hard to raise through intervention.
But given the higher levels of parental satisfaction produced by charter schools, test scores are clearly only one factor parents consider when deciding which schools are best for their children. In fact, parents probably understand the limitations of social policy better than most academics and policymakers. Rather than obsessing over elusive test score gains, parents seem to have a more nuanced and child-specific set of criteria: They want schools that are safe, cultivate a positive attitude about learning, and best fit their children’s abilities and interests. Only school choice programs can satisfy these diverse preferences and expectations.
Whether a viewer’s reaction to Waiting for Superman is one of passion or skepticism, the real take-away from the film should be that school choice programs benefit both students and their families, and that expanding the programs will expand the benefits.