The Texas Legislature opens for business today, with new legislation for school choice high on its to-do list. In the weeks to come, expect to hear the guardians of the status quo repeat one argument over and over: Vouchers will hurt the public school system. But a Manhattan Institute study of a privately funded pilot school choice program in San Antonio, echoing research on programs in other cities, finds the opposite.
The Manhattan Institute’s study of San Antonio’s school choice program, which offers every student in the Edgewood public school district a private-school scholarship, lends support to the conclusion that school choice makes public school student achievement go up, not down. Controlling for student demographics and school resources, we found that Edgewood’s improvement in scores on the statewide Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test from 1998 to 2001 outperformed 85 percent of all Texas school districts. Among Hispanic students, who made up 97 percent of Edgewood’s population, Edgewood outperformed 73 percent of districts statewide. Among lower-income students, who made up 93 percent of Edgewood’s population, Edgewood outperformed 75 percent of districts.
Of course, school choice may not be the only factor at work here. Other forces may also have contributed to Edgewood’s success. But given the district’s exceptionally strong performance, even when the influence of student demographics and school resources have been factored out, it is highly likely that choice had a significant positive impact and virtually certain that choice did no harm.
We also studied school choice in Milwaukee. Controlling for student race and income as well as for school spending, we found that elementary schools with more students who qualified for vouchers saw their fourth-grade test scores rise faster. If a public school had only 50 percent of its students eligible for vouchers, it could expect its average test score to decrease by a little more than 5 percentile points. On the other hand, if the same public school had 100 percent of its students eligible for vouchers, it could expect its average test score to increase by just more than 10 percentile points -- a 15-point benefit.
Why would allowing students to leave the public school system help that system rather than hurt it? School choice programs create strong incentives for public schools to improve. They 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 school choice is available, the only way for a public school to keep its students from leaving is to provide better educational services.
San Antonio’s experience suggests that Texas’ 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. School choice puts parents, not school administrators, in the driver’s seat, and that’s good for students in all schools, public and private.