Friday Freakout Mailbag: Tennessee Edition

Lawmakers in Tennessee are currently considering legislation to create a modest school voucher program. Students from low-income families assigned to the “lowest-performing” district schools who had been enrolled in that school or were entering a Tennessee school for the first time would be eligible for scholarships worth up to the amount of per-pupil spending at their assigned district school. The program would make 5,000 scholarships available in the first year, and that amount would grow to 20,000 in the fourth year.

The legislation is far from Milton Friedman’s ideal, but holds great promise for low-income students who lack access to learning options outside their assigned districts.

However, several citizens expressed concerns about the proposed school voucher program in letters to the editor of The Tennessean last week. Fortunately, all of their stated concerns have been addressed at considerable length in previous Friday Freakouts, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice studies, and elsewhere. I have briefly addressed the key concerns and provided links to lengthier discussions of the relevant topics below. Enjoy!

School Choice: The Impact on Participating Students

In our first letter today, Jon Frere of Nashville addresses the most important question: the impact of school choice on children:


Letters to the editor 1


Actually, if we’re being honest, there’s a considerable amount of research indicating that school choice has a positive impact on student achievement. Moreover, research indicates that the increased competition resulting from school choice policies have a positive impact on the students who remain in their assigned district schools.

In his last Win-Win Solution report, a synthesis of existing research on school choice programs, Dr. Greg Forster identified 12 gold-standard studies on school choice, 11 of which found a statistically significant positive impact for some or all categories of participating students, including such measures as performance on standardized tests, high school graduation, and college matriculation. One study found no visible impact.


Academic Outcomes of Choice Participants

LocationAuthorYearPositive Effect (All Students)Positive Effect (Some Students)No Visible EffectNegative Effect
New YorkChingos & Peterson 2012X
New YorkJin et. al.2010X
D.C.Wold et. al.2010X
New YorkKrueger & Zhu2004X
New YorkBarnard et. al.2003X
New YorkHowell & Peterson2002X
D.C.Howell & Peterson2002X
DaytonHowell & Peterson2002X
MilwaukeeGreene et. al.1998X

Note: This table shows all empirical studies using random-assignment methods.

Source: A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice


Since that report was released, one random-assignment study of the first year of Louisiana’s school voucher program found a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. However, there is good reason to believe that the negative results stemmed from poor program design. Unlike Milton Friedman’s proposed voucher design, Louisiana’s voucher program created price ceilings, prohibited schools from using their own admissions standards, and mandated the use of the state test. As a result of their concerns over regulations, two-thirds of private schools chose not to participate in the voucher program, and those that did were much more likely to have been facing significantly declining enrollment. In short, it may well be that regulations intended to guarantee quality had the opposite effect.

In any case, the overwhelming majority of gold-standard studies make clear that a well-designed school choice program is likely to improve participating student outcomes.

School Choice: The Impact on District School Students

The research shows participating students benefit, but what about nonparticipating students? If they are left in district schools that have “fewer resources,” won’t they be worse off? Mr. Frere continues:


Letters to the editor 2


Not only that, but school choice might mean that the parents who are most concerned with education take their kids elsewhere. That’s the central concern Harry Marsh of Gallatin raises in his letter to the editor:


Letters to the editor 3


So, does school choice benefit the few at the expense of the many?

Actually, the research literature shows that school choice benefits district school students as well. As discussed at greater length in the last Win-Win Solution report, 22 of 23 studies have found that increased competition among schools produces a modest but statistically significant positive impact on district school student performance. One found no visible impact, and none found any harm.


Academic Outcomes of Public Schools

LocationAuthorYearPositive EffectNo Visible EffectNegative Effect
FloridaWinters & Greene2011X
FloridaFiglio & Hart2011X
MilwaukeeGreene & Marsh2009X
FloridaRouse et. al.2007X
MilwaukeeCarnoy et. al.2007X
D.C.Greene & Winters2006X
FloridaFiglio & Rouse2006X
FloridaWest & Peterson2005X
FloridaGreene & Winters2004X
MilwaukeeGreene & Forster2002X
San AntonioGreene & Forster2002X

Note: This table shows all empirical studies using random-assignment methods.

Source: A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice


As I explained in a previous Friday Freakout, school choice policies force district schools to be more responsive to the needs of students and their families:

“District schools often operate as monopolies, particularly those serving low-income populations that have no other financially viable options. And sadly, a monopoly has little incentive to be responsive 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, and student performance improves.

School Voucher Program Accountability

The last two letters in today’s mailbag concern accountability. Feroza Freeland of Memphis writes:


Letters to the editor 4


In a similar vein, Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation writes:


Letters to the editor 5


These comments are packed with faulty assumptions that have been addressed elsewhere. The purpose of state education policy should be to educate individual children not merely to prop up existing institutions.

Research shows that school choice policies do not drain district schools’ funding. School choice policies are intended to expand educational opportunities, especially for the most vulnerable students, not undermine district schools. And as noted above, school choice makes both choice students and district-school students better off.

But getting to the main issue: is it true the district schools are more accountable than private schools?

Those who are tempted to answer in the affirmative are confusing “accountability” with “government rules and regulations,” but they are not the same. As it happens, school choice programs often entail a number of government regulations, but that’s not what makes them so accountable. States impose a great deal more regulation on the district schools and yet, as the gold-standard research described above makes clear, voucher students attending less-regulated private schools outperform their peers. Why? defines “accountable” as being “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.” The most desirable form of accountability would be making schools accountable directly to parents. However, district schools are only indirectly accountable to parents at best. In addition to state and federal bureaucrats, district schools generally answer to elected school boards, that, in turn, are answerable to voters, particularly the voting blocs that get them elected. And even where the majority of parents prevail over any special interests in the school board elections, some parents inevitably find themselves in the minority.

By contrast, private schools are directly accountable to parents, who have the prerogative to take their children—and their money—and leave if the school isn’t meeting their needs. That is real accountability.

Unfortunately, only families wealthy enough to move districts or afford private school tuition can express their dissatisfaction by “voting with their feet,” leaving behind many more families who only wish they could do the same. And since

Mr. Freeland and Mr. Seidel are right to want accountability in our schools, but they’re going about it the wrong way. If we want schools to be more accountable, the solution is not imposing government regulations on private schools, but rather making district schools more directly accountable to parents. The way to do that is to empower parents with the ability to leave a school that isn’t working for their child, and having the money follow that child out the door.


*Opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of EdChoice.