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School Choice Programs’ Effect on Public Schools

By March 4, 2020Commentary

A certain political candidate has some people enthused over a vast expansion of the government’s role in the economy and just about every other aspect of life, despite anyone who is paying attention being aware that government services are generally lousy and expensive.  A new paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research examines what happens to public schools when students are given a choice of attending private schools.   (NBER Paper)   The authors studied the experience of Florida, which over several years expanded its voucher program so that it covered 4% of all students, up from 1%.   It is pretty much beyond controversy that almost all privately run schools do a much better job of providing a real education to their students.  Voucher programs give low-income, often minority, students the same opportunity to attend these private schools that higher-income pupils have.  But one argument against expansion of voucher programs is that it may deprive public schools of needed funding, so maybe the quality of education gets worse at those schools, if it could get any worse.  The authors had rich data on students and on which public schools faced more private school competition.  Primary outcomes were whether for students remaining in public schools, test scores got better or worse and whether there were more or fewer behavioral problems.  The big picture results were that as a public school was exposed to increasing private school competition, test scores for the pupils at the public school improved over time and suspensions and absences declined.  And, very beneficially, the effects were strongest at schools serving more low-income or disadvantaged students.  So giving students the option to go to better private schools improved the educational experience at the public schools which now faced competition.  Isn’t that interesting!

Since social determinants of health is the hot hype now, we all ought to be pushing for full voucherization of the school system.  Particularly for low-income students that would enhance their opportunity to go on to college and to get a job with a good income.  There is a pretty strong correlation between educational attainment and health.  Here, however, is the primary relevance for health care.  To the greatest extent possible, applying free-market economics to any activity will result in better outcomes–higher quality, more access, lower prices.  Doing the opposite, creating a fully government-run system, can only result in worse outcomes, as it has in the public school system, which is run for the benefit of teachers and administrators and their political allies, not students.  There is a reason why Medicare and Medicaid, two massive government health programs, have increasingly turned to private plans to provide better quality at a lower cost and cost trend for their beneficiaries.  Do we want a fully politicized health system as well?  Apparently it is a lot harder to get some Americans to study history, economics, human behavior and use a little common sense than I would have anticipated.

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