Competition and public schools: A look at Florida

Will injecting competition into the educational system save America’s schools? The idea — that if public schools are forced to compete for students (and therefore for funding), they’ll find ways to improve themselves — has been around for decades. Without the pressure of competition, proponents of school-choice argue, schools stagnate.

This thinking has led to voucher programs, in which parents receive taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, as well as the expansion of charter schools, which are independently operated public schools that are free of many of the constraints facing other public schools.

But does competition really work? A new study says yes. Published in Education Next, the study looks at the Florida tax-credit scholarship program, which gives tax credits to corporations for donations to scholarship-funding organizations. Similar programs helped pay for 104,000 students nationally to attend private schools in 2008-2009 (compared to just 60,000 students who used vouchers to attend private schools), according to the study. Last year, 29,000 students in Florida took advantage of the tax-credit scholarship program.

The authors find that students at public schools facing a greater threat of losing them to private schools improved their test scores more than their peers at other schools, and that “this improvement occurs before any students have actually used a scholarship to switch schools. In other words, it occurs from the threat of competition alone.”

The reported gains were small but statistically significant. For example, “for every 1.1 miles closer to the nearest private school, public school math and reading performance increases by 1.5 percent of a standard deviation in the first year following the announcement of the scholarship program.” Other factors that appear to have positively influenced scores are the number and types of private schools nearby.

This study adds to a growing body of research that looks at competition and its effect on traditional public schools. Research on whether charters can help raise achievement at all schools has come back mixed. And some charter-supporters I’ve talked to recently (as well as their opponents) have conceded that the idea of improving failing districts through competition — which sounded good in theory — hasn’t happened in reality.

Even with mixed results, though, school choice doesn’t seem to be losing any momentum. Having a definitive answer to the question of whether competition improves all schools appears not to be a prerequisite for the expansion of voucher programs and charters.