Rising to the Challenge: The Effect of School Choice on Public Schools in Milwaukee and San Antonio
A considerable body of high-quality research exists on whether students who are given the opportunity to attend private school with a voucher benefit academically. Random assignment experiments, the “gold standard” for research designs, have been conducted in Charlotte, Dayton, Milwaukee, New York, and Washington, D.C. to address whether school choice improves outcomes for students who attend private school with a voucher. All of those experiments show significant positive results, particularly for African-American students.
Whether public schools improve in response to the challenge of voucher programs, however, has been less thoroughly studied. The initial results from a number of studies suggest that rather than being debilitated by a loss of revenue and talent to choice programs, public schools are energized to improve and retain their students. As traditional public schools are likely to educate the bulk of students under any realistic choice arrangement, more research on the public school response to the challenge of vouchers would be useful.
This study provides new evidence on the broader question of how public schools fare when faced with the challenge of school choice. It finds that some public schools exposed to competition through school choice programs in Milwaukee and San Antonio significantly improved their academic performance. Controlling for demographic factors of race and income as well as for local school spending, public schools exposed to competition showed more improvement in student test scores than other public schools. The Edgewood school district in San Antonio, the one Texas district where public schools were exposed to a large-scale privately funded voucher program, did as well as or better than 85% of Texas school districts after controlling for demographics and local resources. In Milwaukee, private-school competition (at the 4th grade level) and charter-school competition (at the 10th grade level) were found to cause significant improvements in public school test scores, again controlling for demographics and resources. The comparison between the effects of private-school and charter-school competition is most appropriate at the elementary level, the level at which both private and charter competition are widely available; at that level, only private competition was found to cause improvements.