Classroom Competition a Good Thing


Contrary to the rhetoric that education choice proponents are out to harm traditional public schools, one of the clearly stated goals is for additional options to spark improvement in the public system. Whether the competition is public or private, the prospect of losing students should be an incentive to change — and improve.

The Cato Institute looks at Ohio’s EdChoice program and whether it has had that desired effect. The Fordham Institute, active in Ohio as a charter school organizer, reviews the Cato report below. The lengthy report from Cato focuses on data.

Rigorous school-voucher studies abound, with most research measuring the achievement effects of vouchers for students who use them. This study by CATO’s Matthew Carr — the first of its kind to investigate Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship program — takes a different tack. It examines whether traditional public schools are spurred to improve in the face of a threat of losing students to private schools—if competition itself “creates incentives for systemic improvements.”

To test this, Carr analyzed fourth- and sixth-grade reading and math achievement data on low-performing EdChoice-eligible schools over three academic years (2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08). The results were mixed. While fourth-grade math and sixth-grade math and reading scores remained the same, Carr found the voucher threat correlated with significant achievement gains in fourth-grade reading (the equivalent of 2,200 extra students reaching proficiency). What’s most significant about this finding is that Carr’s analysis controls for (among other things) the “scarlet letter” effect—i.e., did schools improve not because of the voucher threat but rather because of the stigma associated with receiving a highly publicized poor rating from the state? 

Further, while fourth-grade reading gains were significant, they didn’t come from the “bubble kids” — those just below the proficiency cut-off; rather, students in the lowest and highest performing categories made gains. Though its findings don’t constitute a grand slam for voucher proponents, the report is welcome — especially as EdChoice adds another 15,000 students to its eligible roster. 

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