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Choice Helps Public Schools

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Choice Helps Public Schools

January 14, 2003
EducationPre K-12

The guardians of the educational 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 and a voucher program in Milwaukee, echoing research on programs in other cities, finds the opposite: Vouchers help rather than hurt the public school system.

At one time, the main argument of the teachers’ unions and the other entrenched education special interests was that students using vouchers to attend private schools wouldn’t get a better education. Eventually, they shifted away from this argument, as the best available research on school choice showed that students who participate in such programs benefit academically. Programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Dayton have all been shown to improve the education provided to participating students. As this rising tide of academic studies has become too great for teachers’ unions to ignore, they have responded by changing the subject.

Now their main argument is that school choice hurts public schools by draining them of money and talent. But research suggests that this argument is no more accurate than their last one. Far from debilitating public schools, recent studies find that school choice actually improves public school education by giving public schools an incentive to improve.

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 TAAS test from 1998 to 2001 outperformed 85% of all Texas school districts. Among Hispanic students, who made up 97% of Edgewood’s population, Edgewood outperformed 73% of districts statewide. Among lower﷓income students, who made up 93% of Edgewood’s population, Edgewood outperformed 75% of districts statewide.

Certainly, 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 already been factored out, it is highly likely that choice had a significant positive impact and virtually certain that choice did no harm.

Similar results were in evidence in Milwaukee, which has the largest long-running voucher program in the nation. 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 4th grade test scores rise faster. If a public school had only 50% of its students eligible for vouchers, 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 vouchers, it could expect its average test score to increase by just over 10 percentile points—a 15-point benefit.

Our findings, announced yesterday, match those of other recent studies in Florida, 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 American 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? School 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 school 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 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.

The experiences of San Antonio and Milwaukee suggest that public schools need more than just money. 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.