In a recent editorial, the Dallas Morning News inveighed against expanding educational choice in Texas, arguing that legislative leaders should "focus on improving public schools" instead. What the DMN editorial board means, of course, is "spend more money," as they make clear in the penultimate paragraph. Yet although the national average annual expenditure per pupil for district school students has, after adjusting for inflation, nearly tripled in the last forty years, student performance remains flat. Moreover, there is little evidence that merely increasing spending improves school performance or student outcomes. Nevertheless, the DMN has reservations about the possible effects of expanding educational choice:
One proposal would create education savings accounts. If a parent decides against public schools, the money that would have gone with the student to the local school district would instead go to the account, for parents to use on private school.
That could decimate public schools. What about the quality of education for the students left behind?
Good question. Fortunately, a few dozen high-quality studies provide an answer. Contrary to the DMN's assertion that educational choice "would divert scarce taxpayer dollars from already struggling public schools and do nothing to help improve them," the research overwhelmingly finds that expanding choice and competition has a positive effect on the performance of district schools. For example:
- A 2016 study by Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University looked at the impact of the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) on Louisiana public schools. Egalite found, “The competitive threat of the LSP ranges from negligible to modestly positive in the public schools exposed to the threat of competition, with effect sizes growing in magnitude as the competitive threat looms larger.”
- A 2014 study by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart of Northwestern University examined the competitive effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on public schools. They learned that more access and variety of private schools increased the competitive pressure on public schools in the wake of the policy announcement. They state in their conclusion, “The fact that we observed generalized improvements in school performance in response to the competitive threats of school vouchers, even in a state with rapid population growth, suggests that voucher competition may have effects elsewhere.”
- A 2011 peer-reviewed study by Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas and Marcus Winters of the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs looked at the impact of Florida’s McKay special education voucher program on Florida public schools. Greene and Winters found there was approximately a “12 percent reduction in the probability that a fourth- through sixth-grade student” was diagnosed with a learning disability in a public school with average levels of competition. They also found that “being in a public school surrounded by the average number of McKay-accepting private schools was related to an increase in academic proficiency of about 0.01 standard deviations in both math and reading. The positive but very mild competitive effect is consistent with what has been found in previous research evaluating more conventional school choice policies.”
- A 2009 study by Jay Greene and Ryan Marsh of the University of Arkansas considered the systemic effects of expanding school choice in Milwaukee. Greene and Marsh found that public school students in Milwaukee fare better academically when they have more free private options through the voucher program. They concluded, “It appears that Milwaukee public schools are more attentive to the academic needs of students when those students have more opportunities to leave those schools. This finding is robust across several different specifications of the model.”
In other words, the research finds that when parents have multiple schooling options, schools have to work harder to attract them. Throwing money at district schools hasn't worked, but expanding educational choice does not mean abandoning the schools where most children are enrolled. Rather, empowering families with expanded educational choice gives those schools a stronger incentive to meet the needs of students and their parents. That means using resources more wisely to provide families with a learning environment that they want to affirmatively choose, rather than one where they are merely assigned based on the home they could afford.
It is irresponsible for media outlets to make grand pronouncements about the supposed effects of a policy without first looking at what the research literature actually says. Far from "decimating" district schools, dozens of studies show that educational choice policies foster improved performance. The Dallas Morning News should correct the record.