School Choice Works

This is part of a series of articles making short arguing for or against certain policy proposals.

Today’s school choice movement consists of two major options, charter schools, and voucher programs. The evidence for charter schools is much more mixed than it is for voucher programs and since I prefer vouchers much more than I prefer charter schools that is what I will be primarily defending today.

Let me blunt with my opinion, the success of voucher in improving education results is not really debatable. Since 1990 fifteen studies have been done using randomized trials, which is the gold standard for social science research. Of those fifteen studies, four found statistically significant results for all students while another eight found statistically significant results for some student groups. One was neutral and only two showed statistically significant negative results. That means only about ten percent of academic studies using the highest research methodology found negative results for school vouchers.

A Harvard study looking at the effects vouchers had on African Americans found that “using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African Americans by 24 percent.” Another study found that “increased secondary school completion rates by 15-20 percent. Correcting for the greater percentage of lottery winners taking college admissions tests, the program increased test scores by two-tenths of a standard deviation in the distribution of potential test scores.”

For my progressive readers, did you know Sweden has a universal school voucher system? A 2012 study found, “an increase in the share of independent-school students improves average performance at the end of compulsory school as well as long-run educational outcomes. We show that these effects are very robust with respect to a number of potential issues, such as grade inflation and pre-reform trends. However, for most outcomes, we do not detect positive and statistically significant effects until approximately a decade after the reform. This is notable, but not surprising given that it took time for independent schools to become more than a marginal phenomenon in Sweden. We do not find positive effects on school expenditures. Hence, the educational performance effects are interpretable as positive effects on school productivity. We further find that the average effects primarily are due to external effects (e.g., school competition), and not that independent-school students gain significantly more than public-school students.”

Given the overwhelming evidence, it should be no surprise that school choice is supported by economists.

To close out this article let me answer what I find to be the two biggest objections, the separation of church and state and effects on public school funding. Let us start with the objection that school vouchers violate the separation of church and state because state funds go to religious schools. This criticism is flawed for two reasons. For starters, this is a secular purpose. No voucher program requires that the money is used in religious schools. When parents choose religious schools it is often because they have better results than their alternatives. A meta-analysis of ninety studies found that religious private schools do better than public schools. Secondly to block religious schools from being eligible for vouchers just because they are religious is discrimination and would violate equal protection.

Now for the second objection. Since 1970, America has increased the amount it spent on a student to graduate twelfth grade, adjusted for inflation, by almost 200% yet results have been completely flat. I do not think it is wrong to think that even if school vouchers decreased public education spending, given the past forty years, that would not see a decline in public education results but there is not even as a priori (knowledge through logical deduction) to believe school vouchers would decrease public education spending per student. Sure, it probably does decrease total spending but that is not what we should measure education spending by. Vouchers would take children out of public schools while taking less money that was being spent on them meaning that it would actually increase per student spending. One study found that vouchers saved twenty-two million for state governments and lowered the burden on public school districts by 422 million. A 2008 report from the Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that Florida’s “corporate income tax credit scholarship program produces a net savings to the state. We estimate that in Fiscal Year 2007-08, taxpayers saved $1.49 in state education funding for every dollar loss in corporate income tax revenue due to credits for scholarship contributions.”

Sorry lefties and public sector union bosses but school choice works even if it weakens your political power.

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