The expansion of Florida’s school choice scholarship program led to significant academic and behavioral improvements for students who remained in the state’s public schools, a new study shows. It is the latest of more than two dozen studies to show academic gains among public school students after the introduction of school choice programs.
The National Bureau of Economic Research paper, from professors at Northwestern University, Emory University and the UC-Davis School of Education, tracked 1.2 million Florida students over 15 years, making it an extremely large study of the effects of scaling up a school choice program.
The Florida Department of Education and Department of Health granted what the authors called “extraordinary” access to student data so they could match birth and family information to students’ educational data (with all identifying information removed).
The researchers were able to track public school students and those who received tax credit scholarships from birth, and track their educational progress in grades 3-8, where most state testing is done.
Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program allows businesses to claim a tax credit for donations to scholarship programs that help families pay tuition costs at private schools. The program gradually expanded since its creation in 2001, and the authors studied how its growth affected students in public schools.
“We find evidence that as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program scales up,” the authors wrote. “In particular, higher levels of private school choice exposure are associated with lower rates of suspensions and absences, and with higher standardized test scores in reading and in math.”
The results showed that the benefits were more pronounced for public school students from lower-income families.
“Lower socioeconomic status students– measured by free or reduced price lunch designation– see larger effects across all outcomes.”
Eligibility was raised from 185% of the federal poverty level to 260% in the 2016-17 school year. Even with higher-income families ineligible for scholarships, the study found that higher-income public school students also showed some improvements, suggesting that competitive pressures create benefits for all public school students, even those who can’t choose the competitor.
“We find consistent evidence that as the program grows in size, students in public schools that faced higher competitive pressure levels see greater gains from the program expansion than do those in locations with less competitive pressure. Importantly, we find that these positive externalities extend to behavioral outcomes— absenteeism and suspensions—that have not been well-explored in prior literature on school choice from either voucher or charter programs.”
The authors note in their conclusion that the results of their large-scale study are consistent with the findings of previous research on the effects of school choice programs.
“Our results are also consistent with past work showing modest benefits to the initial introduction of voucher programs (e.g., Hoxby, 2003; Figlio & Hart, 2014; Egalite, 2016; Egalite & Wolf, 2016; Figlio & Karbownik, 2016), while extending upon these findings to show the persistence and growth of these positive effects as the program scaled up.”
Mike McShane, writing in Forbes, notes that this is the 27th paper to examine the competitive effects of school choice programs on public schools, with 25 of them having found benefits to the students who remain in public schools.
In fact, the research shows a far stronger positive effect on the test scores of public school students than on the scores of students who leave,, McShane points out.
Benefits for choice students do show up in the research. The Urban Institute found last year, for example, that Florida students who participate in the tax credit scholarship program were more likely to enroll in college and more likely to graduate than their peers who stayed in public schools.
But the results are more mixed than they are for students in public schools, where dozens of studies have consistently shown significant positive effects from school choice programs.
The overwhelming nature of the evidence ought to buttress support for New Hampshire’s tax credit scholarship program, which is similar to the highly successful Florida program.