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.