When Schools Compete, Good Things Happen

Published October 1, 2003

Numerous studies in recent years have shown student achievement and parental satisfaction improve when families use vouchers to choose private schooling. But a nagging question has lingered: What is the effect of voucher programs on students who remain in the public schools?

Now comes an answer: The effect is good–and the more directly public schools are affected by competition from vouchers, the better.

That conclusion comes from a Manhattan Institute study of Florida’s A+ Program, Governor Jeb Bush’s signature education reform. Since the 1998-99 school year, Florida has used its high-stakes assessment test, FCAT, to grade schools from A to F. When any school receives two Fs in a four-year period, its students become eligible for vouchers they can use to transfer to private schools or other public schools.

Incentive to Improve?

To test the A+ rationale that vouchers give failing schools an incentive to improve, Manhattan scholars Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters organized schools into five categories according to the imminence of voucher competition each faces:

  • “Voucher eligible” schools, where students already are receiving vouchers;
  • “Voucher threatened” schools, where one more F will make them voucher-eligible;
  • “Always D” schools–low-performing schools with lots of Ds on their report cards, but which have never faced an immediate threat from vouchers;
  • “Ever D” schools–low-performing schools with just one D on their report cards; and
  • “Formerly threatened” schools, which used to be voucher-threatened but no longer are.

To address any concern that schools might be devising ways to “beat” FCAT without producing gains in real learning, the scholars also checked scores on the Stanford-9, a nationally respected norm-referenced test.

The results showed a remarkably consistent pattern when test scores for each group of schools were compared to the performance of the rest of Florida’s public schools: The more the schools faced competition for students and funds spurred by vouchers, the greater the gains on the FCAT and Stanford-9 from 2001-02 to 2002-03.

Schools already voucher-eligible made the biggest improvements–up 10.1 scale score points on FCAT reading, 9.3 scale points on FCAT math, and 5.1 percentile points on the Stanford-9.

Schools immediately threatened by vouchers made the second-greatest gains–up 8.2 points on FCAT reading, 6.7 points on FCAT math, and 3 percentile points on the Stanford-9.

Schools that have never received anything but Ds for four years, or those that have received at least one D since FCAT grading began, scored slight or statistically insignificant gains, respectively. These are low-performing schools, but any threat of losing students to vouchers is two years or more down the road.

Finally, the formerly threatened schools–those that received an F in 1998-99 but not since–actually reported declining test scores. The F is a distant memory, and because a new four-year period has begun, any threat of competition is remote.

Stigma Alone Not Enough

Critics of earlier Manhattan research on the competitive effects of vouchers argued that the stigma of a failing grade, not the incentives created by vouchers, motivated schools to improve. However, the relatively poor performance of schools that have the stigma of past failure but are no longer subject to a voucher threat undermines that alternative explanation, Greene and Winters contended.

“It is implausible that the stigma effect only exists for three years and then suddenly disappears,” they wrote. “The more believable explanation is that the actuality or prospect of voucher competition provides incentives for schools to improve and this effect suddenly disappears when the four year voucher threat period expires.”

The voucher-eligible and voucher-threatened schools’ across-the-board gains on both the FCAT and Stanford-9 math tests also undercut arguments that schools simply “teach to” or manipulate high-stakes tests like FCAT.

“If schools facing voucher competition were only appearing to improve by somehow manipulating the Florida high-stakes testing system,” the Manhattan scholars observed, “we would not have seen a corresponding improvement on another test that no one had incentives to manipulate.”

The study also considered the possibility that results were shaped by what statisticians call a “regression to the mean,” which roughly translates to “when you’re at the bottom rung, there’s no way to go but up.” If that explanation applied, however, there should be little or no difference between the voucher-eligible/voucher-threatened schools and those that have similarly low performance but do not face a voucher threat. Voucher competition seems to have driven which schools improved and which did not.

“Skimming the Dregs”?

Finally, critics may argue scores are rising in the voucher-affected schools because the worst students are using their vouchers to depart for private schools. That would fly in the face of voucher foes’ arguments that vouchers “cream” the best students from public schools. Although the study unearthed no evidence this is happening, it would mean vouchers were “dredging” the worst students from public schools. In other words, vouchers would be serving the students most in need and relieving public schools of that burden.

The Manhattan study could make an impact on the debate in Congress over whether to fund a pilot voucher program to help 2,000 children from the educationally distressed District of Columbia public school system. House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is cosponsoring DC vouchers with House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Virginia), said the Manhattan paper confirms “that school choice strengthens public education in America.

“When we give parents the ability to make choices about their children’s education, we give underachieving schools the incentive they need to change and improve,” Boehner noted. “Money alone is not the magic cure for what’s ailing public education.”

Given the Florida demonstration of the impact vouchers have on a variety of schools, columnist Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News may have raised the most intriguing question:

“If just a little competition accomplishes so much, what would a lot of competition do?”

Robert Holland is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A copy of the Manhattan Institute study, “When Schools Compete: The Effects of Vouchers on Florida Public School Achievement,” is available online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_02.htm.