Policy Review Banner

Public School Benefits of Private School Vouchers

Friday, January 1, 1999

Across the country, school choice programs are compelling public schools to improve

Though still in their infancy, school choice programs have improved overall student academic achievement in public schools. Evidently, competition is good for learning. Programs that include religious schools and those limited to public institutions alone have both demonstrated that choice leads to higher quality education. When public schools are faced with the possibility of large student transfers, and a corresponding loss of funding, they have shown a willingness to make improvements both in how and what they teach.

The research backs these findings. Furthermore, in places where school choice exists, variety in education has done little to undermine the common school ideal that promises to teach all students equally in a like and equally available setting. In fact, studies show that the ideal is more in evidence in private schools—especially in the inner-city—than in the public school system. Competition is the key.

Consider the results of the well-known public school choice experiment in New York City’s District 4. In 1974, District 4 began allowing teachers in East Harlem’s junior high schools to redesign and create new public schools and allowed parents to choose the schools their children would attend. Before long, the program was credited with raising reading scores and lifting the district from last place in 1973 to 15th in 1987 among New York City’s 32 school districts. The school choice plan also attracted white students to the largely minority school district. Ten years later, in October 1997, a report by Paul Teske and Mark Schneider of the State University of New York confirmed earlier findings. The researchers found greater improvements in the district’s math and reading test scores than those registered in New York’s other 31 community school districts (where choice is not as available). Teske and Schneider also found that the increased number of choice schools in District 4 correlated directly with increases in math and reading scores.

On a much smaller scale, similar results occur when school choice involves private schools—although it is too soon to assess academic outcomes.

In Milwaukee—the site of the first publicly-sponsored school choice program—choice prompted all nine members of the Milwaukee public school board to sign a fundraising letter on September 10, 1998, supporting Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE)—a private scholarship program that makes choice an option for many families in Milwaukee. "Parents have the right and responsibility to determine the course of their children’s education," the board members state in the letter. "[A]s members of the Board of MPS, our task is to support them in carrying out that responsibility," they continue. "MPS can provide quality education for all our children. . . . But until we make it happen, we ask that you contribute to PAVE’s scholarship fund, both for the sake of the thousands of children immediately at risk and for the sake of public education reforms in Milwaukee."

Albany’s Brighter Choice

Private programs like PAVE can, in fact, benefit public schools. In 1997, Virginia Gilder offered vouchers of up to 90 percent of the cost of private school tuition (up to $2,000 a year) to parents in Albany, N.Y. whose children attended Giffen Memorial Elementary School. Gilder’s vouchers, known as "A Brighter Choice Scholarships (ABCS)," could be used for a minimum of three years and a maximum of six for each student. The rationale for the program was simple: Giffen had the worst pupil performance scores of any school in the region and had repeatedly reported that over 50 percent of its student body was not reading at state-set "minimum competency levels." In addition, 96 percent of Giffen Elementary’s students were on the federal free-lunch program. By September 1997, 20 percent of the student body, including the child of the president of Giffen’s Parent Teacher Association, had used the scholarships to attend a private school.

Not all the students who left Giffen remained in the private school of their parents’ choice, however. The private sector can be more selective and dismiss problem students more readily than most public schools. Since most Giffen students were already underperforming in school, it was fair to assume that some would not meet their private schools’ more stringent demands. In fact, of the 11 ABCS students who returned to Giffen, only 2 were suspended from their private school for disciplinary reasons, while one was suspended for being absent from school for over 30 days.

Meanwhile, this exodus sent a much-needed wake-up call to Albany public school officials who immediately took steps to reform Giffen Elementary. Lonnie Palmer, Albany’s superintendent of schools, transferred Giffen’s principal and replaced her with a new principal and two assistant principals—one of whom was specifically commissioned to oversee and boost academic performance. Palmer soon began interviewing each of the school’s teachers and found cause to sack 20 percent of them. To help bring about faster change, the Albany Urban League provided a $100,000 grant to help Giffen students advance in reading. This year, the school scrapped its language arts program and replaced it with "Success for All," a Johns Hopkins University program that boasts particularly high success rates among low-income students. As Anne Pope, the head of the Albany Branch of the NAACP, told The New York Times, "[The ABCS program] has made [the school bureaucrats] take a look at what was happening, or not happening, at Giffen, and take actions they may not otherwise have taken."

The Evidence Supports Choice

Research shows that the long-term positive effects on East Harlem’s District 4 or the over-night impact of ABCS on Giffen needn’t be isolated examples of how school choice can improve the overall quality of public education. Caroline Hoxby, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard University, has looked at two traditional forms of school choice in various parts of the country.

Using Department of Education data, Hoxby compared metropolitan districts where parents, through residential decisions, can choose from a range of public schools to districts where parents have limited choices. She also compared districts where parents could easily afford to send their children to private schools (and where there were many public and private schools to choose from) with districts with less or no public/private school competition. In areas where public schools compete heavily for the same students, she found overall student test scores rose 3 percentile points, students’ wage gains after graduation increased by 4 percent, and the probability of college graduation increased by 0.4 percent.

In areas where public and private schools compete for the same students, Hoxby’s research showed even more pronounced academic improvements. Among students transferring from public to private school, Hoxby found a 12 percent increase in future wage gains and a 12 percent increase in the probability of college graduation. Hoxby also found an 8 percentile point improvement in the test scores of the students in these areas who remained in public schools. From this research, Hoxby concludes that public schools respond positively to competition by improving curriculum.

Any one school’s reaction to the challenges of school choice depends a great deal on the fiscal rewards and penalties attached to the number of students they gain or lose. In areas where several public schools vie for the same students, the overall per-pupil expenditures decreased by an astounding 17 percent. Whereas even those areas with high private school competition, but where the public schools suffer no financial loss for losing a student, public school spending remained the same. These effects are most pronounced in school districts that rely heavily on local property taxes, because the threat of student desertion provides a strong financial incentive to improve performance. Whether the same results can be found in school districts that now allow public funds to follow the child to a public charter or private school of choice remains to be seen. But Hoxby’s analysis offers substantial evidence that we should expect similar results from other forms of competition in education.

Cooperation not Competition

Today, some of the most passionate defenders of public education are engaging the private sector to solve public school problems. Rod Paige, the superintendent of schools in Houston, Texas, is a public school advocate who sees that private schools can help rid public school overcrowding. When Houston voters rejected a $390 million bond measure in May 1996 to build 15 new schools and renovate 84 others, Paige turned to the private sector. He suggested that some students from his 65 overcrowded schools attend local private schools at district expense. Soon thereafter, the Houston school trustees voted unanimously in favor of his plan. Board President Don McAdams told the Houston Chronicle, "the more freedom you give people, I think, the more enthusiastic they are going to be about public education."

As to whether school choice will destroy the common school ideal, many private schools, especially Catholic schools in the inner-city, offer the best examples of the ideal in action. Catholic schools are not only better equipped and have a proven record of teaching inner-city students at a nominal cost, but they provide better racial and economic diversity.

Recently, Jay Greene, assistant professor of government at the University of Texas, looked closely at diversity in public and private schools. His analysis of the 1992 National Education Longitudinal Study suggests that private schools are in fact doing a better job integrating students of different races than public schools. Greene found that 30 percent of high school seniors in private schools are in well-integrated classrooms, as opposed to 20 percent of seniors in public schools. He defines "well-integrated" as a class that has between 15 percent and 35 percent minority representation, where the national average is 25.6 percent. Similarly, more public school seniors attend school in highly segregated classrooms: 37 percent, as opposed to 30 percent of seniors in private schools. Here, he defines "highly segregated" as less than 5 percent or more than 95 percent minority representation in a class.

Greene also studied civic values in the two settings and found that private schools contribute to higher degrees of political participation, social capital, and tolerance than do public schools. Adjusting for differences in backgrounds, he found that people with 12 years of private education would vote 70 percent of the time in presidential elections, while those with no private schooling voted 55.7 percent of the time. He also found that 30 percent of those with 12 years of private education would join a civic organization, compared with 22 percent of those with no private education. And 50 percent of those with at least 12 years of private schooling would tolerate letting members of their least liked group hold a rally, run for public office, or teach in schools, compared with 40 percent of those with no private education.

These findings are starting to take hold. All across the nation school choice is gathering momentum, not because people have given up on public education, but because they realize that, in the words of Howard Fuller, former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, "a school does not need to be run by government in order to be ‘public.’" So far the evidence suggests that, when tried, school choice improves the overall quality of education for public and private schools alike. Real supporters of public schooling no longer oppose real school choice.

Select Sources on Choice

Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education • Distributes information regarding school choice efforts nationwide. Phone: (414) 288-7040; Web site: www.mu.edu/blum

Brookings Institution, Center for Public Policy Education • Provides in-depth research and analysis on school choice and education reform. Phone: (202) 797-6000; Web site: www.brookings.org

Center for Education Reform • Serves as an information broker for national reform. Phone: (800) 521-2118; Web site: www.edreform.com

CEO America • Supplies information on private scholarship programs nationwide. Phone: (501) 273-6957; Web site: www.ceoamerica.org

Children’s Scholarship Fund • Supplies information on private scholarship programs nationwide. Phone: (800) 444-9662; Web site: www.scholarshipfund.org

Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation • Promotes education reform through competition and choice. Phone: (317) 681-0745; Web site: www.friedmanfoundation.org

Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance • Provides in-depth research on the impact of inner-city scholarship programs. Phone: (617) 495-7976; Web site: hdc-www.harvard.edu/pepg/index.htm

Heartland Institute’s School Reform News • Distills local and national headlines with reform-minded analysis in a monthly online newsletter. Phone: (312) 377-4000; Web site: www.heartland.org/education/whatis.htm

Heritage Foundation • Tracks school choice developments in each state and provides analysis of federal education reform initiatives. Phone: (202) 546-4400; Web site: www.heritage.org/schools

Institute for Justice • Litigates educational choice cases. Phone: (202) 955-1300; Web site: www.ij.org

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation • Publishes in-depth analysis on education reform. Phone: (202) 223-5452; Web site: www.edexcellence.net