Two researchers link improved public schools to the specter of private competition.
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
Published August 20, 2003
At a time when Florida's voucher programs are under increased scrutiny, a new study claims that the mere threat of vouchers is making public schools better.
The study, authored by researchers Jay Greene and Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute, says "the amount Florida schools are improving is directly related to the degree of threat they face from vouchers."
Titled When Schools Compete: The Effects of Vouchers on Florida Public School Achievement, the study is likely to become an oft-cited addition to the debate over school vouchers in Florida and the nation.
The citations already have started.
Even before the study was officially released today, it drew skeptical questions from other researchers and was cited by voucher advocates in Tallahassee and in Washington, D.C.
Gov. Jeb Bush praised the study, saying it validates his program. U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the U.S. House Education & the Workforce Committee, used the study to bolster President Bush's case for school vouchers in Washington, D.C.
The study is something of a followup to a similar analysis Greene did in 2001, which reached the same conclusion. Greene's research at the nonprofit think tank often focuses on school choice issues and finds vouchers to be highly effective. His studies were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark school vouchers case.
One of Greene's critics praised his fellow researcher for the improved methodological soundness of his latest study. But he still disagrees with the conclusion.
"We still don't know what leads to these increases in test scores," said Luis A. Huerta, assistant professor of education at the Teachers College at Columbia University. "There are lots of variables that have profound effects on schools. Vouchers could be one of them. But I don't think you can say vouchers is the cause."
The study analyzed the state's test scores and categorized schools by their status, such as those eligible for vouchers, those threatened by vouchers and those not threatened. The schools that showed the most improved test scores were those in danger of getting vouchers through the state's original voucher program. That program, started in 1999, gives vouchers to students at schools that earn F grades in two out of four years.
The study addressed other possible explanations, such as the expected improvement among schools that had nowhere to go but up. Greene dismissed those explanations.
Some schools that had test scores that were just as bad, but didn't face the threat of vouchers, did not improve as dramatically, he said.
Other possible explanations, such as increased funding for failing schools or a change in the school staff are part of the "competitive response to the threat of vouchers," Greene said.