Politics & Policy

The Voucher Challenge

Competition helps public schools.

States and cities across the nation are considering school vouchers as a way to improve their education systems. Colorado recently joined Florida, Milwaukee, and Cleveland in adopting legislation to offer low-income students vouchers they can use to attend private schools. Similar bills have been introduced in Texas, Utah, and Louisiana, and have been discussed in several other states. Most prominently, the first federally sponsored voucher program is scheduled to begin this fall in Washington, D.C.

Few question whether vouchers are beneficial for the students who use them to leave failing public schools. Rather, the debate is now focused on the effect vouchers have on public schools. Opponents contend that vouchers drain resources and talent from public schools, hindering their ability to improve, while proponents argue that the need to attract and retain students will provide public schools with an incentive to improve.

Both opponents and proponents make plausible arguments, but we do not have to make such an important policy decision based only on rhetoric. We can look to the experience of other communities with voucher programs to learn whether expanded choice and competition leads to public-school improvement.

In a study appearing in the current issue of the journal Education Next we examine one of the nation’s most important voucher programs, a Florida program that offers vouchers to students in any public school that receives two failing grades in a four-year period. We found that public schools whose students were eligible for vouchers made significantly larger test-score gains than other public schools in the state. Even public schools with only one failing grade, facing only the prospect of vouchers if they failed again, made exceptional improvements. Meanwhile, similarly low-scoring schools that did not face the threat of voucher competition did not make similar gains.

The same issue of Education Next also contains an independent analysis by Cornell researcher Rajashri Chanrararti confirming these findings. Her analysis also shows that low-performing public schools in Florida have responded positively to voucher competition. Rather than being debilitated by the loss of students and resources, both studies demonstrate that Florida public schools have risen to the challenge and improved in the face of competition.

In Florida, vouchers have provided public schools with powerful incentives to improve. If schools don’t improve they stand to lose students and the funding they generate to other schools. That’s why low-scoring schools exposed to vouchers or threatened with them made significant gains, while low-scoring schools not exposed to vouchers didn’t make similar gains.

These results in Florida echo those of other researchers, including an analysis of the voucher program in Milwaukee by Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby, showing that competition improves public schools. In fact, no study of which we are aware has ever shown that vouchers harm public-school student achievement. Vouchers may place public-school resources in jeopardy, but that is not the same thing as harming public-school students. It may well be that by making public schools earn their resources, we better ensure that those students will be well-served.

Of course public schools need sufficient resources to do their job well. But when public schools are assured ever-larger sums of money regardless of how well they perform, we are likely to end up with schools that perform poorly while costing taxpayers dearly.

We could continue to lavish ever-larger sums of money on public schools, but this is unlikely to produce anything different from what large increases in spending have produced over the past three decades–namely no educational gains. Public schools need more than just money; they also need incentives to use that money effectively. The evidence from Florida suggests that vouchers are effective at providing public schools with those incentives.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow and Marcus A. Winters is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office.

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