The best research on school choice programs such as Milwaukee’s has shown again and again that students who participate in them benefit academically. As this rising tide of academic studies has become too great for teachers’ unions and other guardians of the education status quo to ignore, they have responded by changing the subject.
Now their main argument is that school choice hurts public schools, draining them of money and talent. But new research suggests that this argument, from the same folks who told us that students learn just as well when forced to attend arbitrarily chosen schools rather than schools chosen by their families, is just another tall tale.
Recent studies are finding that, far from debilitating public schools, choice has exactly the opposite effect. Choice actually improves public education by giving public schools an incentive to improve.
A new study by the Manhattan Institute of Milwaukee’s choice program finds that public school test scores go up, not down, when more students have access to choice. Controlling for student race and income as well as for school spending, we found that elementary schools with more students who qualified for private-school scholarships in the 1995-96 school year saw their 4th grade test scores rise faster by 2000-01.
If a public school had only 50% of its students eligible for private-school scholarships, it could expect its average test score to decrease by just over 5 percentile points. On the other hand, if the same public school had 100% of its students eligible for private-school scholarships, it could expect its average test score to increase by just over 10 percentile points - a 15-point difference.
In high school, private schools play less of a role because there are a lot fewer private high schools than private elementary schools. But we found that charter schools pick up some of the slack; the closer a public high school was to charter schools, the more its 10th grade test scores improved.
If a school faced competition from only one charter school located 5 km away, it could expect its average test score to increase by only about 3.5 points. But if we were to pick up that competing charter school and put it down only 1 km away, the public school could expect its average test score to increase by about 9 points.
Our findings in Milwaukee match what we’ve found studying school choice in San Antonio and Florida, and the findings of other recent studies in Michigan, Arizona, Maine, and Vermont, as well as a previous study in Milwaukee. They all found that school choice improves public school performance. In fact, no study of U.S. public schools exposed to school choice has ever found a decrease in the academic performance of public school students.
Why would allowing students to leave the public school system actually help that system rather than hurt it? Choice programs create strong new incentives for public schools to improve. Public schools don’t want to lose students, and the revenue they generate, to private schools. When private school is not an option for most students, public schools can take students for granted. But when choice is available, the only way for a public school to keep its students from leaving is to provide better educational services.
Common sense tells us that even the very best people perform better when they have stronger incentives. If you knew for certain that you would have the same job and get paid the same amount regardless of how much or how little work you did, how much work would you actually do? No doubt you would do some, but probably not nearly as much as you do now. Research is now confirming that this pattern also applies to public schools.
Milwaukee’s experience suggests that America’s public schools need more than just money. Of course schools need sufficient resources, but they also need stronger incentives to rise to the challenge of educating every child. Choice puts parents, not school administrators, in the driver’s seat, and that’s good for students in all schools, public and private.