Vouchers Improve Public Schools

Published March 1, 2003

Opponents of school choice frequently argue that giving parents vouchers will hurt the public schools, resulting in bad schools producing even worse educational achievement for their students.

But a new study of the real-world effects of competition on public schools shows just the opposite occurs: Empowering parents with the authority to choose schools prompts public schools to improve, helping students rather than hurting them.

The study, Rising to the Challenge: The Effect of School Choice on Public Schools in Milwaukee and San Antonio, focuses on the impact of school choice on public school student achievement in two cities with different types of parental choice programs. After controlling for demographic characteristics, like race and income, and for local spending differences, the study’s authors, Manhattan Institute scholars Jay P. Greene, Ph.D. and Greg Forster, Ph.D., found academic improvement in public schools exposed to private school scholarship and charter school programs.

Privately Funded Vouchers: Edgewood

The authors first examined the impact of a privately funded voucher program on the Edgewood school district, a small district in San Antonio, Texas. All Edgewood students are eligible for scholarships to attend a private school or public school in another district. A private organization has funded those scholarships since 1998. Most of the district’s students are Hispanic and low income.

Greene and Forster compared the Edgewood district’s scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) from 1998 to 2001 with those of other districts and groups. After controlling for resource and demographic characteristics, they found Edgewood’s student improvement on the TAAS test over the four-year period exceeded or was equal to the improvement registered in 85 percent of Texas’s school districts.

The Edgewood students also fared well when compared to other Hispanic and low-income populations: They ranked at the 73rd percentile of Hispanic students statewide and 75th percentile of low-income students.

Publicly Funded Vouchers: Milwaukee

The researchers also examined the impact of publicly funded vouchers and charter schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they discovered similar positive impacts from school choice. Milwaukee students are eligible for state-issued vouchers to attend private schools. They also have a range of charter schools from which to choose.

Greene and Forster examined school test scores during the period 1996-97 and 2000-01. After controlling for demographics and resources, they found the following:

  • Among elementary schools, improvement in test scores was positively related to the number of students in the school eligible for vouchers: the more voucher-eligible students, the faster the rise in test scores.
  • Charter school competition had no significant effect on public school achievement at the elementary school level (4th grade).
  • In high school (10th grade), charter school competition had a positive impact, while private school competition had no effect.
  • In middle school (8th grade), neither private nor charter school competition had an impact.

The Manhattan Institute researchers estimated the degree of charter school competition by indexing the distance between a traditional public school and the three nearest charter schools. The closer the nearest three charter schools were to a given public school, the larger the amount of competition that public school faced from charter schools.

Greene and Forster found that, on average, if a school faced only one charter school located 5 km away its achievement increased by 3.5 points during the study period. However, if a charter school was only 1 km away, the traditional public school experienced a 9-point increase in test scores.

That competition from vouchers and charter schools should affect different grade levels differently is not surprising, note the authors, given the higher supply of private elementary schools.

“In light of this fact, the discrepancy between our results for 4th grade, 8th grade, and 10th grade is less mystifying,” they write. “[P]rivate-school competition seems to apply more competitive pressure on public schools at the elementary level, where there are more private elementary schools for parents to choose from, and less competitive pressure at the middle and high school level, where charter schools take up some of the slack caused by the smaller number of private options available.

“At the elementary level,” they continue, “the level at which both private and charter competition are available, private schools rather than charter schools seem to drive public school improvements.”

Growing Body of Research

The Greene and Forster study, released in October 2002, builds on a growing body of research demonstrating improved public school productivity as a result of competition from choice programs. Such research dispels the myth that choice has a negative effect on students who remain in public schools.

As Greene and Forster point out, “because public schools do not want to lose students (and the revenue students generate) to private schools, they can be expected to respond constructively to the presence of school choice programs, providing better educational services in order to reduce the number of students who choose to exercise their option to leave the public school system.”

In an earlier study, Greene found Florida public schools increased their academic achievement when threatened with a loss of students and funding. Under Florida’s A+ voucher program, students in schools that receive a failing grade two out of four years are eligible for vouchers to attend other public or private schools. Relative to other schools, Greene found, schools assigned one “F” have improved at a greater rate, presumably to avoid losing students and funds.

Other studies confirm these results. For example, Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby found positive impacts from choice programs in Michigan, Arizona, and Milwaukee.

Houston Baptist University researcher Christopher Hammons, who examined the country’s two oldest voucher programs, found competition has a positive effect on public schools. Maine and Vermont allow students in school districts without public high schools to attend non-religious private schools through voucher programs called “tuitioning.” Hammons found that public high schools in areas with a high concentration of “tuitioning” students experienced higher test scores. High schools not exposed to competition had lower scores.

Although research into the impact of competition on public schools is growing, Greene and Forster say more is needed and should be given high priority.

“Further study of the subject is badly needed,” they write, “especially since much less research has been done on this question than on the question of school choice’s benefits for students who directly participate in choice programs.”

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Rising to the Challenge: The Effect of School Choice on Public Schools in Milwaukee and San Antonio, by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, is available on the Manhattan Institute’s Web site at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cb_27.htm.

The 12-page study is also available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #11554.