Figlio says private option for poor helps public schools too

The drive to improve our nation’s schools is not a zero-sum game, and a report launched today on shows how alternative learning options for poor and struggling schoolchildren can have a positive impact on traditional neighborhood schools.Northwestern University researchers David Figlio and Cassandra Hart explain that a tax credit scholarship for low-income students in Florida boosted the academic performance of the public schools faced with the threat of losing students to the scholarship program (Disclosure: the editors of redefinED also direct policy and public affairs initiatives for the nonprofit group that administers the program). While Figlio and Hart acknowledge the difficulty in studying the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance, they sliced the data in multiple ways (looking at the number and diversity of surrounding private schools, for instance) and found that the competitive pressure of the program led to “general improvements” in test scores among the students who remained in public schools.They write:

The gains occur immediately, before any students leave the public schools with a scholarship, implying that competitive threats are responsible for at least some of the estimated effects. And the gain s appear to be much more pronounced in the schools most at risk to lose students (elementary and middle schools, where the cost of private school attendance with a scholarship is much lower) and in the schools that are on the margin of Title I funding.

Much of this echoes the effects that International Baccalaureate programs have had on traditional public schools over the last couple of decades. When IB programs first proliferated in the United States, public educators feared they would drain traditional schools of the most high-achieving students. Ultimately, traditional public schools responded to the IB competition by getting better. No one seriously questions the advantages International Baccalaureate brings to public education today.Florida’s tax credit scholarship program also has an organic role to play in an evolving public education system. It is aimed at students who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, and Figlio himself has determined that the students who enter the program largely are the poorest and poorest-performing among their peers. For years, critics have wrongly argued that the program stole the best students from the public schools and made those schools weaker academically. Now we know that a learning option for one child doesn’t have to come at the expense of another.

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit