Few question whether school vouchers are beneficial for the students who use them to leave failing schools. Rather, the debate has focused on the effect vouchers will have on public schools.
Opponents contend that vouchers will drain resources and talent from public schools, hindering their ability to improve. Proponents argue that the need to attract and retain students will provide public schools with an incentive to improve.
This debate will only intensify as more states look toward vouchers as a means to improve the education provided to their children. Colorado recently passed a pilot voucher program, and similar programs have been debated in Texas, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C.
Both opponents and proponents make plausible arguments, but such an important policy decision should not be based only on convincing rhetoric. Examining the experiences of other communities with voucher programs can show whether expanded choice and competition leads to public-school improvement. A new study by the Manhattan Institute provides valuable evidence that vouchers do work to improve education provided by public schools.
The study examined one of the nation's most important voucher programs - a Florida program that offers vouchers to students in any public school that receives two failing grades in a four-year period. The study found that public schools whose students were eligible for vouchers made significantly larger test-score gains than other public schools in the state. Even public schools that had only one failing grade but faced the threat of vouchers if they failed again made exceptional improvements. Similar low-scoring schools that did not face the prospect of voucher competition, however, did not make similar gains.
In Florida, vouchers have provided public schools with powerful incentives to improve. If schools don't improve, they stand to lose students - and the funding they generate - to other schools.
These results in Florida echo those of other studies, including an analysis of the nation's largest voucher program in Milwaukee by Harvard University's Caroline Hoxby, showing that competition improves public schools.
In fact, no study has ever proven that vouchers harm public-school student achievement. Vouchers may place public-school resources in jeopardy, but that is a different issue. It stands to reason that making public schools earn their resources ensures that public-school students will be better served overall.
Of course, public schools need sufficient resources to do their job well. But when public schools are ensured ever-larger sums of money regardless of student performance, we are likely to end up with schools that fail to educate while costing taxpayers dearly.
Fixing our nation's public schools requires real reform to the education system. Lavishing ever-larger sums of money on public schools alone hasn't worked. Schools also need incentives to use that money effectively.
• Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow and Marcus A. Winters is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office.