New evidence on vouchers and “cherry-picking”

One critique of school vouchers and tax credit scholarships
that persists is that they direct public money to private schools that
cherry-pick the best students, even if the vouchers target a low-income
population. Now the
redefinED blog has given us a sneak peek
into a soon-to-be-published study
that examines which students select a means-tested private school option, and
why.

Cassandra Hart, an education professor at the University of California,
Davis, conducted
a study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
for low-income students to
take a deeper look at the characteristics of the participants and the public
schools they left. With help from Northwestern
University economist
David Figlio, Hart finds that scholarship recipients not only are among the
lowest performing students who are economically disadvantaged, they came from
public schools that are, she writes, “troubled along a number of dimensions.” (Full disclosure: From 2009 to 2011, I helped
to develop the policy and communications initiatives for the nonprofit that
administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
.)

Significantly, Hart says the students might have been less
likely to use the voucher if they had better public school options to begin
with: “Where they have a greater ability to exercise public choice, they are
more likely to do so even if they are also offered a private school voucher.”

As for the cherry-picking, the students who enrolled in
private schools on the scholarship tended to have lower standardized test
scores than other students on free or subsidized lunches in public schools
before entering the program. And, according to surveys and Hart’s analysis, the
public schools they left were challenged in the following ways:

  • They had lower aggregate student performance on
    standardized tests;
  • They had higher rates of violent incidents and
    out-of-school suspensions;
  • And principals were more likely to say that
    “parents worry about violence in this school” while teachers were more likely
    to say they spent more of their time on discipline.
Parents of these students were driven to exercise a
choice for their child that was unavailable in the public school system.

So parents of these students were driven to exercise a
choice for their child that was unavailable in the public school system. They
had limited options for open enrollment and charter schools, Hart writes, but
they were more likely to live near a wide variety of private schools.

But a greater array of private options doesn’t imply they’re
all are ideal choices. The most convenient private school options available to
scholarship participants received lower parent ratings, Hart explains,
“suggesting that their private school options engender somewhat less client
satisfaction than do the private schools proximate to Non-participants.”

In other words, these parents are desperate for options.
Their children are the worst-performing students among their peers at public
schools that are disproportionately poor-performing with outsized incidents of
violence and disruption. They are more likely to be black and poorer than other
students on free or reduced-price lunch. And there are limited public choices
in their district other than their assigned school, which motivates their
families to apply for the tax credit scholarship regardless of whether all
their private school options are particularly attractive.

Hart concedes there are limitations to her study that make
the results difficult to generalize to programs in other states. Scholarship
students in Florida
are concentrated in major urban areas. Further research is warranted, she
writes, on access to public options. But one conclusion is clear in this case:
The question of cherry-picking has become irrelevant.

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