School choice improves public schools

From Cato Institute, how school choice programs improve the existing public schools. This is important, as in most states only a very small fraction of students participate in choice programs.

How School Choice Improves Public Schools

Jason Bedrick, Cato Institute

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that district school bureaucrats are “proceeding with an ambitious plan to offer a wider range of education options.”

Superintendent Robert Avossa is leaving the 96,000-student district for the larger Palm Beach County system in Florida. Ken Zeff, who takes over as interim superintendent next week, shares Avossa’s view that parents want and deserve choices.

An array of choices may lessen the exodus of by parents who want a non-traditional setting for their children. More than 15 percent of Fulton families opted for private schools this school year.

While Fulton has increased its number of district-approved charter schools, the AJC reports more than 1,600 families are on charter school wait lists for next fall, largely in south Fulton where school performance is not as high as north Fulton.

(North Fulton is one of the state’s most affluent areas and boasts some of the highest achieving high schools in Georgia. Its schools are a major draw for new families moving to the metro region.)

Not every student learns in the same way so Fulton is expanding school design options.

“This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools,” said Zeff in an AJC news story by Fulton Schools reporter Rose French. “Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”

In other words, when parents chose schools other than their child’s assigned district school–perhaps using Georgia’s tax-credit scholarships–the government school system responded by being more responsive to parental demands.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Out of 23 empirical studies of the impact of school choice policies on district school performance, 22 found a statistically significant positive impact. Recently, the prestigious peer-reviewed American Economic Journal published the results of a study by David Figlio of Northwestern University and Cassandra Hart of the University of California-Davis on the impact of a school choice program in Florida on district schools. The study found that the academic performance of students at public schools improved as a result of increased competition:

We find greater score improvements in the wake of the program introduction for students attending schools that faced more competitive private school markets prior to the policy announcement, especially those that faced the greatest financial incentives to retain students. These effects suggest modest benefits for public school students from increased competition.

As I’ve noted previously, district schools often operate as monopolies, particularly those serving low-income populations with no other financially viable options. And sadly, a monopolist has little incentive to respond to the needs of its captive audience. Thankfully, the evidence suggests that when those families are empowered to “vote with their feet,” the district schools become more responsive to their needs.