Opinion: Competition Makes Public Schools Better

By John Hood

RALEIGH — According to multiple media reports, there will likely be major efforts during the 2023 session of the North Carolina General Assembly to raise and reform teacher compensation and enact other public-education reforms while also expanding the state’s school-choice programs.

Are such initiatives inconsistent? Not at all. One can be in favor both of improving public schools and of giving more parents a wide range of educational options. Indeed, I am strongly of the opinion that these policies are mutually reinforcing.

For starters, even a welcome and net-beneficial change in how North Carolina funds public schools and pays teachers won’t please everyone. That’s impossible. Offering dissatisfied parents or educators alternatives such as magnets, charters, or lab schools can act as a safety valve to defuse tensions while also best serving the individual needs of students.

At the same time, increasing parental choice and competition in education tends to make public schools more responsive and effective, not less so. That’s what a growing body of empirical research suggests. A recently published study of Ohio’s primary voucher program, for example, found that the academic performance of students in public schools was “significantly higher” than it would have been in the absence of vouchers.

Earlier this year, a team of scholars from Northwestern, Emory, and the University of California-Davis released their own study of tax-credit scholarships in Florida. This program provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to companies that donate to organizations that, in turn, give parents vouchers for private-school expenses. Their study, published in the journal EducationNext, examined the effects of the resulting competition on Florida’s public schools.

“Our analysis finds consistent evidence that, as the scholarship program scaled up, academic and behavioral outcomes improved for students attending traditional public schools,” the researchers wrote. In districts with the most school competition, students scored 14.5% of a standard deviation higher in reading and math. Their suspension and absence rates also improved when compared to those in public schools facing less competition. “Our findings from this long-lasting early program show that in Florida, at least, it seems that a rising tide of competition has lifted many boats,” the professors concluded.

There are dozens of other studies of competition’s effects on public education. Some have found benefits smaller than those in Florida and Ohio, to be sure, and a few found no benefits at all. But when scholars examine the overall effects across the country, they generally find them to be positive.

Anna Egalite, an education professor at North Carolina State University, published a review of the data some years ago in the Journal of School Choice. Of the 21 scholarly studies she examined, nearly all found a positive effect of competition on public-school performance. More recently, University of Kentucky professor John Garen looked at the relationship between school-choice policies such as vouchers and education savings accounts (ESAs) and average state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He found “strikingly large test score gains” for states with school choice. “Though per-pupil spending on K-12 has a positive effect on test scores,” Garen wrote, “its magnitude is very small and is swamped by the effect of having a voucher or ESA program.”

I realize longtime skeptics of the state’s choice programs will be sorely tempted to reject this evidence. And I realize activists who’ve tried for years to hitch the school-reform wagon to the Leandro-litigation horse are loath to give up their belief that only by appropriating billions of additional dollars to district-run public schools can North Carolina meet its obligation to provide the opportunity for a sound, basic education to every child.

But they really ought to rethink their strategy for 2023 and beyond. In the midterm elections, voters essentially unhitched that litigation horse from the wagon. There will be no court-ordered financial settlement of Leandro. Forget it.

If you seek significant pay raises for teachers, signal your willingness to couple them with school-choice expansions. That’s a package that might actually pass the General Assembly.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).

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