There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and scaremongering that school choice will destroy public education.
Whenever a state legislature is considering a bill to create a new educational choice policy, the proverbial Chicken Littles inevitably start squawking that the sky is falling.
For example, when Kentucky lawmakers proposed a K-12 education savings account (ESA) policy this year, Gov. Andrew Beshear cried that it was “the beginning of the end to public education,” while state senator Reginald Thomas declared that public education had its “neck inside a guillotine, getting ready to have his head cut off.” Meanwhile, the Arkansas legislature was considering a $3-million tax-credit scholarship bill, which state representative David Tollett called “the final nail in the coffin of public education.” In New Hampshire, state senator Lou D’Allesandro declared that the ESA proposal was “carving public education apart.”
Fortunately for everyone, the sky isn’t falling. Contrary to the predictions that school choice Chicken Littles have been making for decades, school choice does not harm public education, let alone “destroy” it.
How do we know?
Well, we can look at the states with decades of experience with choice policies and see that their public school systems are not only still around, but they tend to be doing significantly better since the advent of school choice. As detailed in a new report from EdChoice, Who’s Afraid of School Choice? Examining the Validity and Intensity of Predictions by School Choice Opponents, predictions about the harm to the district school system have not materialized in the five states with the oldest and most robust school choice programs.
Whether looking at raw standardized test scores, statistical comparisons of states’ test scores with the Educational Freedom Index, or research on the competitive effects of school choice, the overwhelming conclusion is that educational choice has a modest but statistically significant positive effect on the performance of district schools.
Take Florida, for example.
When lawmakers voted for a voucher program in 1999, then Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz declared: “This is the day that will go down in the annals of Florida history as the day we abandoned the public schools and the day that we abandoned, more importantly, our children.” A school board member decried the “attempt to strip the public schools of the resources they have” while the head of an interest group warned, “This will kill public education.”
Since then, Florida’s choice sector has grown to the second largest per capita and the largest in the nation in absolute terms, with more than 180,000 students participating in the state’s voucher, tax-credit scholarship and ESA programs.
And how are the district schools doing? As with Mark Twain, reports of the death of Florida’s district school system were greatly exaggerated.
From 2003 to 2020, Florida’s gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have significantly outpaced the national average, increasing by 12.2 points and 6.7 points on 4th grade math and reading, and 7.2 points and 6.1 points on 8th grade math and reading. Likewise, a recent study of the competitive effects of school choice on district schools in Florida found “consistent evidence that as more students use scholarships to attend private schools, students in public schools most likely to experience heightened competition due to the program see positive effects” on math and reading scores.
Florida is not unique. Researchers at the University of Arkansas found a “strong and statistically significant association” between educational freedom (including the robustness of a state’s school choice policies) and “both academic scores and academic gains.” Indeed, 25 out of 28 empirical studies on the effects of voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs on the academic performance of students who remain at their traditional public schools find statistically significant positive effects. One finds no visible effect, and two find a small negative effect.
The predictions of educational choice opponents are not only consistently wrong, but they also lack any sense of proportionality.
Take, for example, Gov. Beshear’s assertion above that the ESA proposal represented “the beginning of the end to public education.” Was Kentucky considering a proposal like West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship bill, which created an ESA for every single K–12 student switching out of a district school or entering kindergarten?
Not even close.
The Kentucky tax-credit ESA provides funding for a maximum of about 0.6 percent of Kentucky students. Likewise, the tax-credit scholarship program that Rep. Tollett called “the final nail in the coffin of public education” was capped at $2 million and will serve fewer than 0.1 percent of Arkansas students.
As detailed in the Who’s Afraid of School Choice? report, the level of rhetorical intensity employed by opponents of school choice remains constant no matter the size and scope of the proposed policy. Even when considering the most modest proposals, school choice opponents make like Spinal Tap and turn it up to eleven.
In short: Opponents of educational choice recycle the same false prophesies of doom without regard to the evidence or the scope of the proposals. Policymakers have no reason to believe the fearmongering of the Chicken Littles, nor should they expect that reducing the size and scope of their proposals will reduce the intensity of opposition. Instead, they should stay the course, be bold and ensure that every child gets access to the quality education they deserve.