Academic journal article Education Next

Rising Tide: Critics of School Choice Have Grossly Underestimated the Public School System's Ability to Respond to Competition. (Research)

Academic journal article Education Next

Rising Tide: Critics of School Choice Have Grossly Underestimated the Public School System's Ability to Respond to Competition. (Research)

Article excerpt

THE MOST SCATHING CRITIQUE OF VOUCHER programs and charter schools is that they may bleed traditional public schools of their best students and most active parents, leaving the children who are left behind even worse off. Moreover, as the students leave, taking their per-pupil funding with them, the public schools will find themselves stripped of the human and monetary resources necessary to answer the call of competition. "Skimming," the term of art for this hypothetical phenomenon, may lower overall achievement, as the downward spiral of the public schools swamps any gains made by the students who take advantage of school choice.

Market enthusiasts have always argued the very opposite: that competition will improve the public schools, just as the entry of Federal Express and DHL into the package-delivery market forced the U.S. Postal Service to lower its costs and offer new services, such as Express Mail. Few analysts expected the Postal Service to be able to compete with its new rivals, yet several decades later it is a worthy opponent. Supporters of school choice believe that public school administrators and teachers would respond with equal vigor to the prospect of seeing their students and funding walk out the front door. Their professional pride and livelihood in jeopardy, they would work harder, adopt more effective curricula, hire more talented staff, and turn the district office into more of a support center than a maker and enforcer of rules. They would be spurred to innovate in ways that improve student achievement and parental satisfaction, Competition would be the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

For the most part, the research is in on the question of whether students in private schools, using a publicly funded voucher or paying tuition, perform better than their peers in public schools after adjusting for all the background characteristics that affect achievement. Studies comparing students in private Catholic schools with students in public school, and students who receive a voucher to attend a private school with those who don't, show substantial achievement gains as a result of attending a private school. How competition affects the students who remain in public schools, however, is a relatively unstudied question. In the vast majority of cities and states, charter schools and voucher programs are either too young or too limited for the public schools to have responded in any significant way.

Only in one city, Milwaukee, and in two states, Arizona and Michigan, have the new choice reforms created truly fluid education marketplaces for a sustained period. Students in Milwaukee have been using vouchers to attend private schools since the 1990-91 school year, though only in 1998-99 was the cap on the number of voucher students raised from 1 percent of the district's enrollment to 15 percent. The Milwaukee district loses a significant amount of state aid to the voucher program, enough at least to notice if not to elicit some kind of competitive response. This study examines the trend in student achievement in Milwaukee schools where large shares of the student body are eligible for vouchers.

Both Arizona and Michigan have generous charter school laws, approving their applications more easily and funding them more fully than other states. They were both early converts to the charter movement, and some of their public schools are now suffering noticeable enrollment and funding losses as a result of competition from the charter school sector. This study examines achievement trends in districts and municipalities in both states where charters have captured significant market share, Taken together, the findings presented here, from Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan, offer a first glimpse at how public schools are responding to these new forms of school choice. They suggest that the fears of a downward spiral aren't merely overblown, They're simply wrong.

Time-Tested Choices

It is important to recognize, before discussing the effects of charters and vouchers on public schools, that these new forms of choice simply add to the varieties of de facto choice already available in many parts of the country. …

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