School Choice & Charters What the Research Says

What Happened to Students Left Behind as Florida Expanded Its Voucher Program?

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 03, 2020 1 min read
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The nation’s largest tax-credit scholarship program doesn’t seem to have hurt the academics of students who remain in public schools, a new study shows.

Those students who stayed in public schools during the expansion of Florida’s tax-credit-funded private school vouchers program—the nation’s largest, with more than 100,000 students participating—saw improvements in their reading- and math-test scores, and had fewer suspensions and absences on average, concludes the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The most likely explanation for the gains, the study says, appears to confirm one of the arguments made by private school choice boosters: The competitive pressure that comes from students having a lot of school choices led public schools to improve their offerings. But the study was not designed to peer inside the “black box” of schools to determine precisely what happened.

Researchers from Emory University; the University of California, Davis; and Northwestern University drew on a sample of more than 1 million Florida students, merging their birth records with test-score data from grades 3-8 from the 2002-03 through the 2016-17 school years. Students’ suspensions and absences were tracked through 2011-12.

Student outcomes were analyzed against different measures of school competition, such as how many private schools with the same grade levels were nearby or the proportion of students served in private schools. The findings showed students attending schools in more-competitive areas seeing greater increases in reading- and math-test scores and decreased suspensions and absences.

The researchers tried to rule out alternative explanations for the results, such as smaller classes in the original schools or lower achievement among the exiting students. They also warned that Florida’s program has some unique features: Not all private school choice programs may yield the same effects.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as What Happened to Students Left Behind as Florida Expanded Its Voucher Program?

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