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Debating the Effects of Vouchers for Middle-Income Families

How would expanding private school vouchers to middle-income families affect public schools forced to compete with them, and reshape the nation's education system as a whole?

Those were a couple of the grander questions hashed out at a forum on private school choice at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday. All answers, of course, require heavy doses of speculation, given that voucher programs to date have focused on low-income and special-needs students, and that providing eligibility to middle-income families is a new idea, having only recently been set in motion in Indiana.

Much of the discussion at AEI focused on whether private-school competition spurs improvements in public schools. One of the participants, David Figlio, of Northwestern University, discussed the results of one of his recent studies, which found that a Florida tax credit for private-school tuition brought about small but significant gains in nearby public schools. His fellow panelists—Grover J. Whitehurst, of the Brookings Institution; Nada Eissa, of Georgetown University; and Jane Hannaway, of the Urban Institute—offered views on the questions Figlio's study helps answer, and those it doesn't.

During the Q-and-A, I asked the panelists about whether expanding vouchers to middle-income families, as Indiana plans to do, might prod a larger swath of public schools to do better.

Figlio offered two scenarios. Under Florida's and other state voucher systems targeting low-income recipients, nearby public schools presumably have a strong incentive to improve their performance, because if they don't, they lose impoverished students and the Title I money that goes with them, a signficant blow to their budgets. The financial losses for public schools under a middle-income program might not be as great, he said, and thus those schools might not see the same urgency to improve.

On other hand, under a middle-income voucher program, families with more resources may have greater access to information about the private school options available to them than low-income families do, which might make them more likely to take part—and ramp up the pressure on their public school neighbors.

"You can't have good choice without good information," Figlio said. "To the extent that middle-income families might have more information, they may be more actively engaged in the program. That could provide more of a competitive threat."

Whitehurst, who directed the Institute of Education Sciences during George W. Bush's presidency, said that to avoid creating stratification between low- and middle-income families' school options, "states should pay careful attention to the design of their choice programs, if they're interested in equity."

"As we expand choice, we're really going to have to, ideally, build into it open enrollment systems or randomized selection procedures," he said.

At another point in the discussion, Whitehurst said it suprised him that private-school competition is linked to improved public-school performance in Florida, or anywhere else, given the lack of clear direction for public schools on what proven strategies they should use to better themselves.

He offered an analogy. A school district decides to allow students to buy meals from off-campus businesses, like the nearby McDonald's. Public school cafeteria directors have several options to keep students eating in house, Whitehurst said, such as trying to improve outreach to students and encouraging the cafeteria staff to be friendlier. The cafeteria director, he said, "knows about the production function for satisfying customers."

By contrast, public school principals looking for proven strategies for improvement confront a "vast empirical wasteland," Whitehurst said. Despite the current wave of interest in merit pay, improved professional development, and other educational strategies, there is scant hard research that suggests that those options lead to increased student achievement on a large scale, he said.

"What do I do as a school principal, if I don't want to lose students?" Whitehurst said. Right now, "we can't specify what the owner of the business"—public schools—"should do to respond successfully to competition."

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