Politics & Policy

Killing Opportunity

School choice helps all schools. A bad decision has a domino effect.

This week a district appeals court ruled that Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to students in chronically failing public schools, violates the state’s constitution because it allows students to use taxpayers’ money at religious schools. The case is now on its way to the state’s supreme court and may find itself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the not-too-distant future.

So far, coverage of the ruling has focused on the 600 or so students attending private schools with Opportunity Scholarships who will be shipped back to public schools if the ruling stands. But this only scratches the surface of the ruling’s impact on Florida’s children. Killing vouchers would also harm the more than 2.5 million students in Florida’s public schools.

Few question whether vouchers benefit the students who use them to leave failing public schools. A high-quality body of research has consistently shown that private schools will do a better job educating these underserved children. What is less widely appreciated is that vouchers are also proven to raise test scores in public schools as well.

Voucher programs provide failing public schools with the incentives they need to improve. Under the current system, urban public schools don’t have to worry too much about providing students with a quality education because their students have no real opportunity to leave. Vouchers force public schools to compete with private schools for their students, as well as the state funding those students generate, by providing a better education.

We recently evaluated Opportunity Scholarships’ effect on Florida’s failing public schools. We found that public schools faced with voucher competition made extraordinary gains on the state’s standardized tests. For example, public schools whose students were offered vouchers improved by nearly six-percentile points more than other Florida public schools in one year’s time on the Stanford-9 math test, a nationally respected measure of academic proficiency. Schools that were not yet competing with vouchers but were in danger of facing such competition if they didn’t improve also made significant gains.

Because of the way Opportunity Scholarships work, failing schools can remove themselves from the threat of voucher competition if they turn themselves around. Interestingly, our research suggests that once this happens and they are no longer threatened by vouchers, schools actually regress relative to other public schools. Thus, when schools compete they rise to the challenge and improve, but when they are allowed to relax they slip back towards failing their students just like before.

Similarly, if the state’s courts are allowed to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarships, the progress made by Florida’s public schools will likely disappear. Florida’s students can hardly afford having their schools lose the incentive to improve that vouchers provide. According to our calculations, only 56 percent of Florida’s class of 2001 graduated from high school, the lowest graduation rate in the nation. Florida’s voucher programs have helped to reduce this crisis, though the state still has a way to go.

Our findings are consistent with other high-quality research. Several others, including Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby, have found that school-choice programs improve local public schools. In fact, despite claims from the teachers’ unions and their allies that vouchers harm public schools by draining them of resources, we are unaware of a single empirical study showing that vouchers harm public school outcomes. There isn’t even any junk social science showing vouchers are harmful.

Destroying Florida’s voucher program would have a devastating impact not only on the few students who use vouchers as a lifeline to leave failing public schools, but on children throughout the state. If Florida’s schools are going to improve, the state’s reforms need to survive.

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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