States, cities, counties, or school districts could use a well-crafted school choice expansion to attract families and businesses at no net fiscal cost—and probably some long-term savings to taxpayers—while also improving their public school system.
Such a program isn’t hypothetical. The Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation funded a universal tuition voucher program in the Edgewood Independent School District (EISD) of San Antonio, Texas from 1998 through 2008.
The unique provisions and circumstances of the Edgewood Voucher Program provide a useful glimpse of positive school choice outcomes when many of the restrictions placed on choice programs are removed.
For example, in addition to universal voucher eligibility and zero regulation of school content, the Edgewood program allowed families to supplement vouchers with private funds at schools that charge more than the voucher amount. When we studied the program, one of our significant findings was that low-income families can and will make a significant tuition co-payment to place their children in an alternative to their assigned traditional public school.
But that is not all we learned.
Both Public, Private Benefits
The normal comparison of voucher users and similar children staying in public schools was unavailable because voucher users didn’t take the same tests as EISD students, and invalid because of large, historic gains by the public school students. In fact, test scores across the Edgewood district rose sharply compared to nearby public school districts from 2000 through 2003, to an extent not seen since.
Beyond those unusually large test score gains by public school students, and high satisfaction, achievement, and graduation levels by the voucher users, the Edgewood assessment showed significant benefits for economic development not previously considered in the context of school reforms.
The discovery of immediate economic development effects significantly expands the subject matter of school choice debates and strengthens the case for large, unrestricted programs.
In the early years of the Edgewood voucher program, before anyone could be sure it would not be permanent and before budget constraints closed the program to new voucher recipients, enrollment in the EISD public schools rose for the first time in recent history at the same time as EISD departures were a part of rapid growth in voucher use.
The only way for school district enrollment and voucher use to rise concurrently is through significant population growth. And during the 10 years the Edgewood voucher program was operational, San Antonio saw a sharp rise in economic activity, with a boom in commercial real estate and a significant increase in commercial and industrial property values.
In the early years of the Edgewood voucher program, an address in the Edgewood Independent School District became a highly desirable commodity, both for parents interested in the voucher plan and for those in search of much-improved public schools. The price of a single-family home in the EISD increased $6,500 on average, and the school district netted an additional $15 million in property taxes and per-pupil payments from the state.
We saw the reverse effects as the program wound down and the $52.4 million endowment for the vouchers ran out. As voucher use declined in the final years when few new applicants received vouchers, the EISD’s pre-voucher enrollment decline resumed even as voucher use fell, and even after the program expired and hundreds of EISD resident children lost access to subsidized private schooling.
Our analysis of the Edgewood voucher program indicates large, unrestricted school choice programs are likely to yield much larger effects than the targeted, restriction-laden programs scholars have been investigating for decades in search of evidence showing whether school choice works.
This limited glimpse of unrestricted school choice in action indicates school choice can in fact work much better than suggested by the assessments of the heavily studied, restriction-laden programs that have tried thus far across the United States.
Furthermore, the study shows the effects of large, unrestricted programs are likely to extend beyond improvements in education outcomes. The most immediate effect is likely to be an influx of residents eager to exercise choice without paying twice, and increased business activity to serve them.
Legislators and policymakers struggling in this era of fiscal austerity should find a school choice program modeled after the Edgewood experiment highly attractive.
John Merrifield ([email protected]) and Nathan Gray ([email protected]) are cofounders of the E. G. West Institute for Effective Schooling (www.egwest.org). Merrifield is professor of economics at the University of Texas-San Antonio College of Business. Gray is assistant professor of business and public policy at the Young Harris College Division of Behavioral and Social Science. The Searle Freedom Trust, the CEO Foundation, and the UTSA College of Business funded Merrifield and Gray’s research.
John Merrifield and Nathan Gray: “An Evaluation of the CEO Horizon, 1998-2008, Edgewood Tuition Voucher Program,” University of Texas-San Antonio, 2010: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/29372/