Florida school choice results in growing benefits for its public school students

A new study published in the American Economic Journal reveals the growing benefits a Florida private school choice program has had on students attending public schools.

Authors David Figlio (Northwestern University), Cassandra Hart (University of California at Davis), and Krzysztof Karbownik (Emory University) explored how Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program affected public school students’ outcomes as the program matured and scaled up over a 15-year period.

We observe growing benefits (higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates) to students attending public schools with more pre-program private school options as the program matured. Effects are particularly pronounced for lower-income students, but results are positive for more affluent students as well. Local and district-wide private school competition are both independently related to student outcomes.

Figlio, Hart, and Karbownik’s study is an important contribution to the existing body of research on private school choice programs because it examines their impact on traditional public schools over a long stretch of time. As the authors note, the majority of papers on the topic tend to investigate only the introduction of a school choice program and its effects on public schools (which are positive).

But as the program expands and matures, what are the corresponding effects on public schools?

Increasingly positive, the authors point out.

Thanks to this study of a major statewide voucher program — the largest of its kind in the country — there is now evidence to show that “as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program matures.” (Student composition, teacher composition, and school resources did not explain away the results.)

Schools located in markets with more competitive pressure saw increases in math and reading scores as the choice program expanded, and students in those schools saw consistently greater reductions in suspensions relative to their peers in schools facing less competitive pressure.

Lower socioeconomic status students — as measured by either use of free or reduced-price lunch or by mother’s education level — experienced larger effects across all outcomes than their more affluent peers, but the positive effects on the more affluent students are still statistically significant, the authors point out.

…[T]he fact that the expansion of the program was nonetheless associated with improvements for this group of children in more competitive landscapes suggests that the benefits of competitive pressure are diffuse and extend, albeit to a lesser degree, to children that the public schools face no risk of losing to private schools due to the voucher program.

Over the course of the sample period, Florida’s school choice program participation increased nearly seven-fold. The authors found consistent evidence that as the program scaled up and matured, students in public schools that faced competitive pressure experienced greater gains than those in schools with less competitive pressure.

The national teachers’ union opposes this type of school choice program and related ones, recently referring to them as “schemes.”