In Florida, Vouchers Bring Modest Improvement to Public Education

Mar 26, 2012

Westwego, LA, March 29, 2007 -- A first grade teacher works through the a lesson with her class. (Robert J. Alvey/FEMA)

Late Thursday night, the state house passed a bill that would allow public school dollars to be used to send students from low-income families attending failing schools to private schools instead. The legislation, which is a cornerstone of Governor Bobby Jindal's education reform plan, could hit the Senate floor this week.

The voucher program is modeled in part after a program in Florida, which was the first state to try vouchers on a large scale a decade ago.

David Figlio, a professor of education, social policy, and economics at Northwestern University in Illinois, has been studying Florida's program since its inception.

He was skeptical at first.

JEFFRIES: The big question that Louisiana is grappling with right now is, do vouchers work?

FIGILIO: There are three important questions to ask when you're saying, do vouchers work?

So, one is, are the kids that participate in the voucher program doing better, or at least the same, as they would have done were they to remain in their assigned public school?

The second question is, is the voucher program helping to facilitate better matches between students and schools?

And the third is, what are the effects, positive or negative, of the voucher program on the public schools themselves?

So the first question about whether or not the voucher program improves the performance of the students who participate - from Florida's experience, I would say, maybe a little bit.

Both voucher advocates and voucher opponents have been interpreting those same numbers very differently.

So voucher advocates tend to interpret those numbers as very strong positive evidence, right, because they say, ok, well, if the kids are doing at least as well in the private schools as they were in the public schools, and they're costing taxpayers on that a little less money, or maybe a lot less money, then this is clear that the vouchers are increasing bang for the buck.

Voucher opponents on the other hand will interpret those same numbers as saying, well, gosh, you really are upsetting the apple cart when it comes to this, and if we're not observing large improvements in student performance, is it really worth it?

When we get to the second question - the question of are we seeing better matches - I think the answer seems to be, at least from Florida's case, to be unambiguously yes.

A lot of people were really concerned that the sets of students who would be going to the voucher program from public schools might have been the high-flying students.

If anything, all of the studying I've done so far of Florida makes it look like it's the worst-performing students are the ones who are leaving the public schools to go to the private schools.

It's likely to be even more so in Louisiana. Because in Florida, private schools are able to select students - they're able to say, ok, well, I want you, but I don't want you, just like private schools who don't take vouchers are able to. But in Louisiana, from what I understand, there's not even that selection.

And then the third question, about whether the voucher program provides some additional competition for public schools, and here the evidence from Florida suggests public schools who are facing more voucher competition tend to improve the most.

JEFFRIES: There aren't that many students in Florida - proportionately - who are participating in the voucher program.

FIGLIO: It's only about 2 percent of the eligible student population.

JEFFRIES: But yet it's still having a significant impact.

FIGLIO: Yes. Particularly for the set of schools that stand to lose a lot of money if they lose a handful of students.

So, I guess my view is, if I could give a lesson from Florida to Louisiana, it would be smart small.

JEFFRIES: And they should proceed not worrying that resources are going to be taken away from traditional public schools in a way that's detrimental.

FIGLIO: If I had this conversation with you in 2000, looking prospectively, I was really afraid of that.

The more I found that it's the kids that were probably costing a lot of money in terms of these are kids that were performing poorly who needed extra remediation who often were causing disciplinary problems and those were the set of kids who were disproportionately likely to move to the private schools, and once I found there was this positive competitive effect, and once I found that it sure didn't look like there was any evidence that the public schools were hurting, at least at the level of vouchers that we were talking about, that all reassured me.

JEFFRIES: So, certainly in Louisiana as the conversations have proceeded around the various proposals that are part of Governor Bobby Jindal's reform package, there's been a lot of talk about parents, and parents wanting to have some options to put their kids who are struggling into another school, in a better educational environment, and I'm just wondering from hearing you talk about how the gains that individual students are making under this sort of system in Florida being so modest, should there be some moderation or tempering of expectations?

FIGLIO: I think that educators are not miracle workers. I will tell you that there are some students who go from the public schools to the private schools in Florida who just really take off and do incredibly well in the private school when they weren't doing well in the public school. But you know what, there's also a lot of students who do appreciably worse too. So, if on average they're doing about as well as they would have done in the public schools, or maybe a little bit better, that means there should be some tempering of expectations.

JEFFRIES: Well, David Figlio, thank you so much for doing all this research, and sharing it with us in Louisiana.

FIGLIO: It's my pleasure. I'm happy to help.


Read David Figlio's official reports on Florida's "Tax Credit Scholarship" program at www.floridaschoolchoice.org.

Read David Figlio's paper on the competitive effects of vouchers  at www.nber.org.