What school choice contributes to systemic improvements in education: A spotlight on Florida

Doug Tuthill

I’ve spent the previous two days discussing accomplishments in Jeb Bush’s tenure as Florida’s governor while highlighting that, despite Bush’s forceful leadership and insistence that high-poverty, minority children would succeed, the state has failed to implement all the systemic improvements the governor envisioned.

But one significant change that did occur during Bush’s first term was the creation of three publicly funded private school choice programs.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities both were established in 1999, while the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students passed in 2001. The Florida Supreme Court ruled the OSP’s private school option unconstitutional in 2006, but the McKay and tax credit programs today currently help a combined 53,000 students attend more than 1,300 qualified private schools.

The McKay and tax credit programs positively impacted the achievement of low-income students during Bush’s first term by creating more competition, which research suggests benefitted the students who remained in their public schools, and by reducing the concentration of low-income and disabled students in inner-city public schools.

The competition benefit generated by the tax credit program was documented recently by David Figlio and Cassandra M.D. Hart, two Northwestern University researchers. They reviewed seven years worth of Florida test data and found the competition created by the tax credit scholarships had a positive impact on public school students’ achievement. No matter what measure the researchers used – the proximity of private schools to public schools, for instance, or the density of private schools within five miles of a public school – the effect generally was the same.

“The threat of losing students – and state funding based upon enrollment – to private schools may give public schools greater incentive to cultivate parental satisfaction by operating more efficiently and improving outcomes for students,” Hart said. “We saw the biggest impact on public schools that served a disproportionately large number of low-income students, probably because the scholarships were available only to students from low-income families.”

While this competition effect is significant, reducing the concentrations of low-income and learning disabled students in inner-city public schools also is an important contributor to higher student achievement. Low-income students in urban communities tend to be concentrated in specific neighborhoods, causing their neighborhood public schools to have large numbers of high-poverty students. And, as Figlio found in a previous report, the tax credit scholarship attracts the poorest and lowest-performing students from disproportionately low-performing public schools.

We know that in two adjacent Orlando, Fla., zip codes last year, about 900 high-poverty students used tax credit scholarships to enroll in local private schools, allowing neighborhood schools to focus their resources on a smaller number of highly disadvantaged students. Ask any classroom teacher or school principal if reducing the concentration of high-poverty students in a school is a good idea.

The tax credit and McKay programs, along with charter schools, virtual schools, magnet schools, career academies, dual enrollment and home schooling, form the beginnings of a well-regulated, market-driven public education system that is necessary – but not sufficient – for sustaining large yearly achievement gains among low-income students.

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Steven Rogg January 15, 2011 - 5:05 am

No doubt! As you say: “Ask any classroom teacher or school principal if reducing the concentration of high-poverty students in a school is a good idea.” And this is not only a good idea, but strategic policy design. Clearly there is a soft threshold where the density (concentration) of poverty and languages (ESL) impose practically insurmountable demands on schools. This is easily shown by simple scatterplot of proxy variables for poverty and ESL versus nearly any proxy metric for achievement (state test passing rates). However, the demographics of many local areas/neighborhoods are such that simply adding more buildings does not alter the relative density demand among schools. Barring in-migration (as in “gentrification”), out-migration (as in “flight”), or daily-migration (“busing”) there be alternatives that ameliorate the density matter. You have already suggested some possibilities.

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