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Charleston Post and Courier


S.C. Schools Need Vouchers

December 08, 2003

By Jay P. Greene, Marcus A. Winters

Gov. Mark Sanford will soon unveil a proposal for improving South Carolina’s struggling public school system that will likely include a plan to offer vouchers to students in low-performing schools.

Few question whether the students given vouchers to leave failing public schools would benefit. Rather, the debate has focused on the effect vouchers will have on the students who remain in public schools.

Opponents contend that vouchers will drain resources and talent from public schools, hindering their ability to improve. Proponents argue that the need to attract and retain students will provide public schools with an incentive to improve.

Both opponents and proponents make plausible arguments, but such an important policy decision should not be based only on convincing rhetoric. Examining the experiences of other communities with voucher programs can show whether expanded choice and competition leads to public school improvement. A recent study by the Manhattan Institute provides valuable evidence that vouchers do work to improve education provided by public schools.

The study examined a voucher program that is nearly identical to the one being considered by Gov. Sanford -- a Florida program that offers vouchers to students in any public school that receives two failing grades in a four-year period. The study found that public schools whose students were eligible for vouchers made significantly larger test-score gains than other public schools in the state. Even public schools that had only one failing grade but faced the threat of vouchers if they failed again made exceptional improvements. Similar low-scoring schools that did not face the prospect of voucher competition, however, did not make similar gains.

In Florida, vouchers have provided public schools with powerful incentives to improve. If schools don’t improve, they stand to lose students -- and the funding they generate -- to other schools.

These results in Florida echo those of other studies, including an analysis of the nation’s largest voucher program in Milwaukee by Harvard University’s Caroline Hoxby, showing that competition improves public schools.

In fact, we know of no study that shows vouchers harm public school student achievement. Vouchers may place public school resources in jeopardy, but that is a different issue. It stands to reason that making public schools earn their resources ensures that public school students will be better served overall.

Of course, public schools need sufficient resources to do their job well. But when public schools are ensured ever-larger sums of money regardless of student performance, we are likely to end up with schools that fail to educate while costing taxpayers dearly.

Fixing South Carolina’s public schools requires real reform to the education system. Lavishing ever-larger sums of money on public schools alone hasn’t worked. Schools also need incentives to use that money effectively.

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