Public Schools Improve!
In an interesting counterpoint to the report I discussed yesterday, the Economic Policy Institute has recently released a study entitled Vouchers and Public School Performance, which assesses the impact of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program on the public schools there.
The most fascinating thing about this report is that it explicitly acknowledges the choice program’s positive impact on public schools: "[T]he observed improvement in public school test scores associated with the implementation of a greatly expanded voucher plan in 1998 was probably a response to the threat of increased competition." According to the researchers, the problem is that by their measurements the improvement in the public schools appears to have been a one-time phenomenon, because the improvement plateaued once the scholarship program’s expansion was completed. Sure, the program seems to have created improvements, they argue, but it’s not clear that competition is generating the steady upward trend in public school performance that choice advocates anticipated.
The authors conclude, "If choice can, at best, produce a one-time improvement, particularly an improvement due to schools taking standardized tests more seriously, this is an effect that can probably be produced by other (possibly lower cost) policies and incentives."
The first important point to make is that, although the authors do not concede the success of choice for those students using the program to attend private schools (they claim those impacts are too difficult to assess absent a state-mandated evaluation), they plainly acknowledge that, far from crippling the Milwaukee Public Schools in the way choice opponents had threatened, the choice program resulted in unambiguous improvement in the public schools’ performance. The scholars are merely struggling to explain how public schools might be able to accomplish similar results without school choice. The point they want people to ignore? However you want to explain it, school choice in Milwaukee has improved the public schools!
The second important point is that there are now more than 17,200 low-income students enjoying educational choices that they would previously have been denied. Before the choice program was implemented, only wealthy parents got to choose where their children would go to school. Now those options are available even to those who need them the most. School choice in Milwaukee has given thousands of families educational freedom!
The third important point is that the authors try to put the burden of explanation back on choice advocates. I love this one. The authors say, "for the choice argument to be convincing, advocates need to show more consistent and sustained improvements in student learning and should be able to explain at the operational level how choice induces schools to improve student performance." Are you kidding? They acknowledge the improvements, acknowledge that the choice program is the source of those improvements, but then effectively say that unless we can explain to their satisfaction why school choice worked, they’ll continue to try and take educational choice away from those poor families." Choice opponents are willing to abandon a program that has improved the public schools simply because they don’t understand why it works!
The final important point I’ll address is that for all of the billions of dollars spent by public school systems nationwide in desperate efforts to improve their schools without disturbing the status quo, it was a low-cost choice program in Milwaukee (the city spends $12,000 per public school student, but only $6,500 per choice student) that has shown the most promise for improving public schools. Opponents of choice may argue that the upward trend in public school achievement was temporary, but the gains are significant and have been sustained. Choice opponents are happy to demand billions of dollars for the status quo, but vehemently oppose demonstrably successful reforms that could actually result in less educational spending!