Many private and charter schools outperform public schools in terms of both costs and performance. Vouchers’ dollar amounts are significantly lower than the amounts public schools spend per-student and yet voucher programs often achieve better results. A 2010 assessment of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program showed that the 3,300 low-income D.C. children improved their academic achievement significantly under the program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which is the oldest voucher program in the nation, also bested Milwaukee public school graduation rates by 11 to 13 percent. The success of these programs provides a clue to the root problem of low achievement in so many urban areas: Poverty didn’t keep these children from performing better, failing schools did.
Furthermore, school choice can have a positive impact on public school reform. By introducing more competition for education dollars and students, school choice provides incentives to public schools to improve their academic performance. Studies show that when public schools find themselves in competition with private school vouchers and charter schools, public school student performance improves.
Increased school choice also means more parental empowerment. Empowering parents to choose the best schools for their children is the most promising step to reform America’s education system. When public schools are shielded from competition with better performing private and charter schools, school administrators can succumb to pressures from teachers’ unions rather than from parents who demand superior performance.
Worse, parents who have little say in how tax dollars flowing to public education are spent become discouraged from being actively involved in their children’s academic development. Education is most effective when the learning that takes place in schools and homes is mutually reinforcing. When both structures fail, it’s the children who are left in the dark.
Another important tool for cash-strapped states to get more education for their limited tax dollars is to embrace innovative approaches to education. Integrating information technology better inside and outside of the traditional classroom can result in significant cost-savings and performance-enhancements. Virtual education, for example, introduces online components into curricula, which makes education more child-centered and engaging to students.
Florida Virtual Schools (FLVS) achieved performance results as good as or better than state averages on any measure at a fraction of the costs. FLVS also represents a model system for tying funding directly to performance. The school only gets paid when students complete their courses with a passing grade.
Necessary state budget cuts could be a boon, rather than a burden, to education if state governors and legislators adopt meaningful education reforms by introducing more competition and school choice in their states.