James Lytle on School Choice

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Winnie Hu of the New York Times cited James Lytle of the University of Pennsylvania as her only scholarly authority on the question of the efficacy of school choice:


Vouchers have been tried in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Washington, among other places, with mixed success, said James Lytle, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the superintendent of the Trenton public schools from 1998 to 2006.

“There isn’t much evidence that these approaches improve student performance,” said Dr. Lytle, who is concerned that such plans could divert resources from the public schools.

Nevertheless, he said, these kinds of proposals, meant to introduce competition, choice and incentives to improve education performance — something he calls “market models of school reform” — are becoming more popular, attracting the support of the Obama administration and influential groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Note that the proposal floated by Governor Christie is not a Milwaukee-like voucher system. Rather, according to Hu’s own reporting, it is something quite different:

Mr. Christie has also called for more charter schools and adoption of a voucherlike system that would provide scholarships so students in low-performing schools could attend other schools. (The New Jersey scholarships would be financed by private corporations in exchange for tax credits.)

Where has something like this been tried? Florida. And do we have any evidence regarding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program? We do. Cassandra M.D. Hart and David Figlio of Northwestern published an evaluation of the program in EducationNext.

Our results indicate that the increased competitive pressure public schools faced following the introduction of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program led to general improvements in their performance. Both expanded access to private school options and greater variety of options that students have in terms of the religious (or secular) affiliations of private schools are positively associated with public-school students’ test scores following the introduction of the FTC program. The gains occur immediately, before any students leave the public schools with a scholarship, implying that competitive threats are responsible for at least some of the estimated effects. And the gains appear to be much more pronounced in the schools most at risk to lose students (elementary and middle schools, where the cost of private school attendance with a scholarship is much lower) and in the schools that are on the margin of Title I funding.

As Figlio and Hart acknowledge, there are limitations to their approach. Yet this does seem like a salient finding.

For a broader take on school choice, I recommend Rick Hess’s “Does School Choice ‘Work’?”

One thing I found frustrating was the way in which Hu characterized Christie’s education agenda as “tough-on-schools.” The notion that zealously defending above-market wages for underperforming teachers is the same as zealously protecting public schools strikes me as very weird. While this isn’t of earth-shattering importance, it is fair to say that many New Jersey residents will only read Hu’s take on the issue, and that’s a shame. At the very least, it would’ve been useful to find someone knowledgeable about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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